Defining the chief data officer

Defining the CDO

Do agencies really need a chief data officer?

Roughly half of the major federal agencies now have one, but confusion persists over how a CDO's role fits into the existing CIO portfolio. Yet for Peter Aiken, founder of the data management consulting firm Data Blueprint, there's a very simple criteria.

“The short answer is if you’re happy with how your data assets are being leveraged in support of your strategy, then you probably don’t need a CDO,” Aiken said Oct. 6 at the SAS Government Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C.

He then asked how many people in the audience are happy with their data. When the room fell silent, Aiken had his answer: “I think that means everybody needs one at the moment.”

It's not quite that simple, of course.  But Aiken and his fellow panelists -- Commerce Department Deputy CDO Tyrone Grandison and the Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau's CDO Jon Minkoff -- explored what's really required of the CDO position.

Why agencies need a CDO

All three men believe most agencies should have a CDO, but organizations must first determine why they need that role.

“The CDO could fill one of many roles,” Grandison said. “They could be an advisor for the overall structure of different departments, they could be technologist that could see the direction you need to be taking -- and the data that drives the direction-- or they could just be developers for whole data departments.”

And virtually every organization probably has someone serving as the de facto CDO already, Minkoff added. “I think that in every organization there’s that request for information, and there’s a person or a team of people that know where the data is and they compile it. I think that if these places had an experienced CDO, then it wouldn’t be such a fire drill, and there would be some data management and governance that is put in action, and people could leverage those assets much better.”

A sometimes-squishy skillset

For Grandison, a CDO must have technical, statistical and analytics skills that a typical person in management lacks, as well as a broad-based appreciation of data.

“You need a CDO to be someone who’s a strategy thinker,” he said. “Rather than just have the traditional management skills, they have to have an emphasis on how do I structure data and have an appreciation for what is data itself and what are the different formats of it.”

Minkoff agreed, but added that a successful CDO must also be able to work with others.

“You have to be a great collaborator,” he said.  “I think that across every organization there are teams of really talented people, but getting them to understand what it is to open up your data, and go through the growing pains of putting in a good data governance and data management plan, is going to promote the mission much better, much faster and the quality of your data is going to improve.”

“That way people are going to be doing the work they’ve been hired to do instead of trying to clean up data and write reports,” Minkoff added. “The only way to do that is you have to have legitimacy, you have to understand the business process, you have to understand exactly why you’re looking for that data -- and a CDO will know that.” 

The future for CDOs

All three men predicted a bright future for CDOs -- and Minkoff in particular voiced optimism that the tools for data management and analytics are finally catching up to the ambitions.

“There’s going to be an incredible uptick in the technologies that are available to CDOs,” Minkoff said excitedly. “I think that data visuals are going to increase and push down to the users, and as that tech evolves, the CDO is going to be able to [push previously untapped data] into an application that everyone is going to be able to use .... it’s going to become a lot more interactive.”

Aiken added that the struggles around data today will lead to a significant shift in the way people look at CDOs and what they do in the future.

“I predict we will use CDOs for a bit, and everybody will eventually become smarter because we’ll develop the programs” to extract more value from agency data, he said. “And 100 years from now they’ll be going, ‘Wow, that’s really sad that they had to go through that, but we’re glad we had the leadership here to be able to do that [and] get to that critical mass.’”

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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