Sometimes overlooked in the trends and tech in the information management space is the way careers are transformed (or merely relabeled). One such role that enterprises are attempting to get a handle on is the Chief Data Officer. Professor and industry adviser Peter Aiken estimates that only about 10 percent of CIOs “know what they’re doing” when it comes to managing data as an asset, and he’s aiming to reframe data’s leader in the enterprise in his new book, “The Case of the Chief Data Officer.” recently talked with Aiken on the expectations and challenges of changing enterprise data roles, from the CDO and the CIO and beyond. Let’s start with the book. It’s just over 50 pages and has a subtitle of “Re-casting the C-suite to Leverage Your Most Valuable Asset.” What’s your aim in this condensed plea on the CDO to the business side?

Aiken: It’s for your boss’ boss. There are an awful lot of people in IT who know that data hasn’t been going well. This new emphasis on big data means that efforts with data are going to continue to go poorly over the next couple of years. There are several reasons for that, but the most important is – without trying to sound harsh – when we look at what we’ve asked CIOs to do, they are responsible for infrastructure, application software packages, Ethernet connections and everything in between. It’s an incredible range of jobs. If you look at a chief financial officer, they have a singular focus on finance, because finance and financial assets are a specific area the business cares about. A chief medical officer doesn’t have ancillary duties like making sure their hospitals are stock with supplies. Unfortunately, for our CIOs we have set them up to not be successful information officers. ... Taking data as a strategic asset gives it unique capabilities, and when you take the characteristics of data and you see the breadth and scope of CIO functions, they don’t work together. It hasn’t worked, it’s not going to work, especially when you consider the other data plans coming down the pipeline. This book is short, on purpose, so you can hand it to executives and they can see quickly what their bigger IT problems are.

You write that these data roles are too often confused with the IT help desk or other more operational roles.

In my research credentials [at Virginia Commonwealth University] we’ve been studying IT failures for years and we haven’t found one that isn’t traced back to data as its root cause. Data as an IT asset is poorly managed and because of that, it makes things go wrong in IT.

So how do you define this CDO role? And how is it separate from IT, or the CIO or even more nebulous roles like data scientist?

Let’s start with the data scientist, that’s seemed to have gotten all the attention lately. By the way, do you know what we call a project that’s gone bad? A science project. So I’m not sure we want to put all our eggs into the basket of someone we’re calling a data scientist. What we’ve seen is that most data scientists are incredibly ineffective. They take on average three years to become useful to the organization. While they may understand statistics, algorithms and analytical predictions ... they know nothing about the domain in which they’re operating. Developing that domain and specific knowledge takes another three years. I’m very gloomy about the prospects of a data scientist solving most [enterprise challenges]. We have companies coming to us saying they can have someone who’s a CDO and a CIO. That doesn’t work because you need to be singularly focused on data. Just taking a CDO and having them report to a CIO is not a recipe for success in this area either. For the CDO, only after working on the data part for a year will you have an idea of the size and scope of the data challenge for your organization. ... This is when you find, for example, there’s a guy with a SQL server under his desk who asks you not to rat him out. And you can’t. People set these things up because IT can’t handle these data projects. That’s part of the reason why MDM and other aspects of data management are failing.

How do you allay some of the skepticism from business that this is merely another title or project?

What has to happen is that data is treated as fuel that moves your business, and it’s what people really want from an innovation perspective. Organizations [must] start to realize that data is a unique asset, and a durable one that should have a specific accounting definition. We manage our durable assets with professionalism and care, and neither of those are occurring in the data world. Another key piece is in the strategy around data ... if you’re trying to go directly to innovation, that’s a very different set of knowledge, skills and abilities you have to develop than if you’re trying to improve your efficiencies and effectiveness.

Give me ways this CDO role should be set up.

Three-quarters of the CDO roles were created in the last year ... On top of that, three quarters of those roles report back to IT. IT correctly discovered project management in the last 10 years. That’s great, but data is not a project. So the CDO reports to the business. For example, business data architectures is a business function, not an IT function. In fact, the only data management areas that stay behind with the CIO are the actual development of databases and the tuning, backup and recovery of the data delivery systems, with security shared between IT and business. Another one of the contentions is that data management must precede and be separate from the systems development lifecycle. None of those work if you’re trying to develop data assets at the same time as you’re trying to develop these systems. Lastly, it has to be a full-time position. We have to overcorrect for the negligence we’ve given this [role] in the past.

We’re clearly early on in the adoption of these CDO roles.

We’re seeing about 7 percent of organizations that are actually considering a CDO role or have implemented one as of this year. MIT has a CDO role event this summer, so we’re starting to get conferences and attention around it, Gartner is making its case, though they align the CDO as a chief data officer or a chief digital officer. So I’m hoping there’s momentum. We’ve seen these silver bullets rise and fall pretty regularly. We won’t reach the tipping point this year, but as something like big data becomes less of a buzzword and takes on more of a practical practice, that’s when people may start to sit down and think about data roles differently.

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