Insurance company XL Catlin last month named Dr. Henna A. Karna as its chief data officer. Karna joined XL after serving as both president of Verisk Digital Services, a unit of Verisk Analytics, and as actuarial CIO and managing director at AIG. Information Management contributing editor Lenny Liebmann conducted an email exchange with Dr. Karna about her new position and the enterprise data landscape. This is an edit version of their discussion.

Henna A. Karna, CDO at XL Caitlin
Henna A. Karna, CDO at XL Caitlin

Information Management: What do you perceive the role of the CDO to be in today’s increasingly data-driven organization?

Henna A. Karna: The CDO’s role is about utilizing data to create deeper, extended connections with the network we serve—which, in most cases, is the customer. In effect, that means finding and creating new value capture mechanisms for the company.

If you think of data as notes on a sheet of music, the role of the CDO is to orchestrate those notes and give them the right context. A numerical view alone is insufficient. It's about weaving the quant with the context.

Context is an important concept that enables competitive analytics and helps drive a corporate strategy. For our firm, it extends our value proposition from transactional de-risking of our customers’ business to something that much more broadly sustains a long-term relationship.

IM: What do you see specifically as the top challenges and objectives for you in your new position?

Karna: The creation of high-impact business insight from enhanced evaluation and consumption of data is not a one-person job. So one of my primary objectives is to create institutional momentum around our data strategy so that it becomes part of our company’s DNA, rather than just some particular practices we adopt. Another challenge as we pursue disruptive data-related endeavors is to balance velocity, value and maximized learning in a fast-fail execution model.

IM: Are there any emerging technologies that you’re particularly excited about?

Karna: Blockchains are particularly interesting, because data lineage and transparency are so useful in the insurance industry. Genetic algorithms are also exciting, because organizations still tend to view Big Data in siloed blocks—and genetic algorithms overcome that limitation by enabling data elements to “breed” freely, creating new “mutations” that reveal previously opaque insights. And, of course, artificial Intelligence is valuable for underwriting, pricing, and other applications for advanced machine learning.

IM: Tell us about your approach to collaboration with the rest of the business, outside the office of the CDO.

Karna: Collaboration is about understanding the stakeholder forum—which typically consists of the unwilling, those who let it happen, those who help it happen, and those who make it happen. The objective of collaboration is to bring that stakeholder forum from where they are in that spectrum to where they need to be. This must be done by continually adding incremental value as your work together evolves.

IM: What advice would you give your fellows CDOs?

Karna: The CDO function is not about going from legacy technology to a cutting-edge platform. It's not about pulling information into a single source or about creating end-to-end governance structures. These are all table stakes that should occur in parallel with your broader, more strategic focus on creating business impact.

IM: What advice would you give someone who isn’t a CDO yet – but aspires to be one?

Karna: Always make sure you understand the business. All that you do, regardless of your role in any organization—let alone that of the CDO or an aspiring one—is about contributing to the objectives of the business. That should always be the core of your aspiration. As obvious as it may sound, it's incredible how often people overlook this core principle.

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