In most organisations, C-level executives have a specific function. The CFO looks after finance, the CEO execution and strategy, and the CMO marketing. The exception is the chief information officer (CIO) who can fulfil anything from infrastructure planning and delivery all the way through application lifecycle management down to security policy.

But as data, and the managing and mining of it, becomes more crucial, more companies are looking to a separate individual to take charge of their data: the chief data officer or CDO.

“The CDO is rapidly becoming an essential appointment for any organisation over a certain size,” says Richard Firth, serial entrepreneur and CEO of MIP Holdings.
“There needs to be a person who can identify the correct data to collect, who can also manage it and who can make sure the company culture and processes are driven by data.”

Many people in IT roles know that their data isn’t managed nearly as well as it could be. This is partly because throwing hardware and storage at the problem worked in the past but is now unfeasible because of the sheer volume of big data and the number of disparate systems and locations where it resides. It’s also because IT already has too many other things to worry about. That means the CDO needs a different approach.

“According to Prof. Peter Aiken in his book The Case for the Chief Data Officer, the CDO needs to have three attributes to be successful,” says Firth.

“Firstly, he must be dedicated to the organisation’s data – and nothing else. Secondly, he must report directly to the business, not anyone else and certainly not to the CIO or to IT. Aiken points out that IT people are too close to the systems to feel enough of the pain about the implications of poorly-managed data on the business.
“Finally, his priorities must take precedence over any systems development work. The CDO’s strategy must come first.”
But few companies treat their data as a strategic asset or base their processes around it. Simply introducing another titled person into the business is unlikely to get IT or management to change.

“The biggest challenge to the organisation considering a CDO is changing the company culture. The board of directors needs to realise both that their data is an essential asset for the business – with all that that requires – and that there needs to be a full-time person to take charge of it.”

The changes brought to business by big data, leading to this need for a CDO, are mirrored in the transformation of business by consumer electronics. The business of IT today is being driven by consumer electronics – determining what type of information business has access to, and how that information is used to reach customers.

Firth points out that a chief innovation officer will become just as important as other C-level execs in the future.

“Things are changing. With big data permeating enterprises, coming from a variety of sources and through a variety of devices, not only does the CDO have to manage this information, innovation is necessary in order to ensure that it is used to its fullest potential.”

Firth says that although less than 10% of companies currently have CDOs, a number of industries have already identified it as a crucial role. Chief Innovation Officers are even rarer.

“The financial industry is ahead of the curve in recognising that a properly empowered CDO needs to be both the steward and champion of any organisation’s data. But any organisation with a global footprint or siloed information will need to get serious about appointing a qualified CDO who has the authority to drive the strategy.”