Even with a newly created position, a $100 million budget and a team of 600, Wells Fargo's chief data officer, Charles Thomas, says he's fighting the forces of corporate inertia.

"It's hard to get a successful company to change until something hurts," Thomas said Thursday.

"Many of the large banks have breaches, privacy issues and other big challenges," he said at SourceMedia's second annual Banking Analytics Symposium in New Orleans. "Wells Fargo hasn't been hit with any of those challenges, so it's hard to get the company to start thinking differently about its data until something hurts."

Thomas, who was hired by Wells nine months ago to be its first-ever chief data officer, holds a PhD in behavioral science — and strong views about what chief data officers should be doing at their banks.

Why do banks need CDOs? To help them build data-driven cultures and use data as a competitive advantage, he said.

"Banks know a lot of things about our customers but we don't use it in a timely fashion," said Thomas, who spoke at the second annual Banking Analytics Symposium in New Orleans.

Wells Fargo has several thousand people analyzing data across the enterprise. Thomas has what he calls a "small team" of 600 in his group.

"Just like a conductor, there's a need to do section alignment—brass, wind, percussion, horns, strings, harmony, tempo," he said. "The objective is to make beautiful music in harmony and that's what chief data officers do."

Judging from a show of hands, only about 15% of the audience members had someone in a chief data officer type role in their banks. Thomas predicted this will change.

"You'll start to see more of a trend because ultimately, we're sitting on tons of data and we're not really using it in a relevant and timely fashion," he said.

Getting people in analytics roles to agree on definitions throughout the company is a major challenge of the job, he said.

"How do we get those people to operate in harmony?" he asked. "Systems don't talk, there's no common version of the truth. We can't even come up with a common definition of 'customer.'"One group might consider a customer a person, another might think in terms of households, and a third might think in terms of accounts.

"The hard part is getting people to agree about things like that," he said.

Cross-sales programs, for instance, can't work if there's no common definition of the customer, he pointed out.

And the CDO needs to help data analysts think like businesspeople, he said.

"You'll hear me talk about analysts as action agents — get out of your cubicle, take off the geek hat, put on your business hat and show how those results get moved through the system," he said. "You're going to have to take extra steps in making sure you put those insights through the system, operationalize and put them into action."

Originally published by Bank Technology News. Published with permission.

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