The Importance of CDO Technical Expertise

As chief data officer (CDO) job activities and responsibilities become evident in real-world CDO appointments, the question arises of how “business-oriented” vs. “technology-oriented” a CDO should be. While the answer is clearly “both,” some confusion has arisen, in part because the CDO is a crystalizing and disruptive addition to a C-suite where business, technology, and data already intersect.

Our survey asked respondents, “How important is it that a chief data officer be technically oriented?” The consensus answer is very important. A follow-on finding is that respondents also perceive technically-oriented CDOs to be the most effective. In detail, the results tell a story that is more about data culture than about demographics. Organizations with strong data-centric practices—easily-found analytic content, data-driven decision making, high business intelligence (BI) penetration, and overall BI success—are most likely to specify a technically-oriented CDO. By comparison, industry, geography, and even organization size are less-certain indicators of demand for CDO technology orientation.

We also observe roles being sorted in the executive suite. With C-level positions defined by their operative middle word (executive, finance, marketing, operations, etc.), we are not surprised to find that CEOs and CFOs are the most likely to delineate and desire a technically-oriented CDO for eponymous data accountability. By comparison, respondents in IT, R&D, the BI Competency Center (BICC), or marketing and sales are more autonomous and less adamant in their desire for a technology-oriented CDO.

The findings are worth considering for their subtlety when addressing a CDO charter or appointment. For example, a less-certain boundary exists between the chief information officer (CIO), the chief technology officer (CTO), and the CDO. This is partly because contemporary emphasis on data has led to competencies and inherited responsibilities for the CIO and other chief executives that might be transitioning to or augmented by the CDO’s domain. As-is and desired executive hierarchies will inevitably differ from one organization to the next. It is up to each organization to navigate the fine points and (re)organize the C-suite accordingly.

We believe the mix of CDO technical and business orientation should ideally be seamless, but it can arise only from C-level strategies and directives that successfully govern, nurture, and leverage data culture at large. Our research recently highlighted the CDO’s central role as both a leader and an intermediary (see the Research Insight, “Top CDO Activities: Govern, Communicate, Align”).

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