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Will the role of the chief data officer eclipse that of the CIO?

Chief data officers make the case why organizations need them; watch out CIOs: The Data Mill reports from the MIT Chief Data Officer and Information Quality Symposium.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The knives were out for CIOs at last week's MIT Chief Data Officer and Information Quality...


Daryl Crockett, CEO at  ValidDatum, an analytics consultancy in Cambridge, Mass., suggested in a session on chief data officer trends that the role of the chief data officer exists, in part, because of the CIO's shortcomings.

"If the chief information officer had been asking the right questions …," she mused. "And really, isn't their role to engage with the business and understand the needs of the business and work with the CTO to provide that? Now, we're stepping in with the CDO because we're more data focused. So isn't the CDO doing what the CIO should have been doing all along?" Harsh.

Then, there was the exchange between a few attendees that assumed CIOs are increasingly becoming chief infrastructure officers.  And if infrastructure is increasingly moving to the cloud, what does that say about the future of the CIO role? Another attendee said IT has so tainted its relationship with the business that CDOs shouldn't report to CIOs, lest they be painted with the same ugly brush. To be fair, Debra Logan, a Gartner analyst, has made a similar point, albeit without the CIO criticism.

The CDOs, it seemed to me, weren't looking to demonize the CIO so much as they were making the case as to why organizations need a data officer -- that is, a person in charge of data policies and procedures who can take on data monetization efforts. The argument is one CIOs know well: Business analysts aren't just hungry for data; they're starved, according to attendees. And if organizations are to become data driven, business users need access to relevant, quality data. Delivering this access hasn't been easy for CIOs, given the demands on IT to keep IT running.

Not everyone at the conference saw the rise of the CDO coming at the expense of the CIO role. Indeed, some CDOs argued that the CIO-CDO partnership needs to be strong if they're going to succeed. Mark Ramsey, CDO at GlaxoSmithKline PLC, headquartered in the United Kingdom, called an adversarial CIO-CDO relationship "a recipe for disaster. It's got to be a working relationship. It's got to be collaborative." Ramsey reports directly to the president of research and development at the pharmaceutical company, but he "dotted line" reports to the CIO "because it's better to have him in the tent than it is to have him outside of the tent -- and you all know the rest of the analogy," he said, alluding to the famous Lyndon B. Johnson quote on J. Edgar Hoover.

Plus, Ramsey said, adding a CDO to the C-suite can fill a gap no one expects the CIO to fill. "There's not a role in the [IT] organization that says, 'How do we leverage data as an asset to drive the business strategically in another direction?' That's not the IT organization. You don't expect the CIO to say, 'You know, if I take this data and connect it to that data, [combine it] with external data, we could launch a new business and drive revenue for the organization.'"

Digital CIOs make data their business

Except that's precisely what some of the most successful CIOs are doing, as Lindsey Anderson, chairman of the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium and perhaps the lone CIO advocate in the session on CDO trends, pointed out. In May, Anderson and his symposium team presented Michael Nilles, CIO at Schindler Group in Switzerland, with their 2015 leadership award.

Nilles isn't just the leader of the IT department; he wears two hats by also being the CEO of Schindler's digital business, where he's, in part, outfitting Schindler elevators and escalators with sensors and building out a services model.

The CIO-CDO division of labor

For the uninitiated, the chief data officer, born out of industries with significant compliance requirements -- such as financial services and healthcare -- is the head of data. While CIOs own the systems, CDOs oversee all of the bits and bytes that flow through those systems. CDOs are often in charge of data policies, procedures and governance; in many cases, they act as a liaison between the IT and the business; and, increasingly, they're taking on data monetization efforts.

"A lot of companies on the cutting edge of technology and information are moving toward a two-speed IT where they have one part of business focused on keeping lights on and a separate organization that's integrating technology in business that's driving the innovation," said Anderson, and where CIOs have one foot in the business and another in IT. "There are companies evolving the CIO role in that direction. And, for those companies, data is certainly a key component."

It's a work in progress, Anderson said, "but the head of the wave is for a CIO to take on a more strategic role that is driven by digital transformation, it's driven by expectations of the C-level executives." And what if CIOs don't do this? Well, even Anderson had to admit the future of the CIO may be dim.

"Some of these guys are not going to be able to cut the mustard," he said, "and they're going to be gone."

Data lake or data swamp?

Michael Stonebraker, a researcher at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-founder of Tamr Inc., warned attendees at the MIT CDO Symposium of the dangers of the data lake. A data lake, he argued, focuses on data ingestion, but doesn't solve the hard problem of cleaning and transforming the data, he said.

"If you just do ingest, you've constructed very little value," he said. "What you've done is created a data swamp."

That perspective, according to another speaker, sells the data lake short. "It becomes a data swamp if you don't have data governance," said John Talburt, co-founder and chief scientist at Black Oak Analytics Inc. in Little Rock, Ark. and executive director of the Center for Advanced Research in Entity Resolution and Information Quality at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

The data lake does more than make ingestion easier, Talburt said. It "releases us from the bondage of the relational schema," he said. Data ingested into a data lake doesn't have to be structured at the time of ingestion, and that gives businesses flexibility for analytics.

Say what?!?

"I walk into some organizations and they say, 'How do we become a data culture?' It's like an impossible question to answer. It's like that Louis Armstrong thing, when someone asked him what's jazz -- if you have to ask, you'll never understand." -- Randy Bean, CEO and co-founder, NewVantage Partners, Wall Street Journal contributor

"I don't know what the difference between a CDO and a CAO [chief analytics officer] is. Is it that meaningful? All of these things are starting to blur together." -- Josh Clarke, partner, Heidrick & Struggles

"The biggest problem with innovation is your org chart." -- Alex "Sandy" Pentland, director, MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program

Welcome to The Data Mill, a weekly column devoted to all things data. Heard something newsy (or gossipy)? Email me or find me on Twitter at @TT_Nicole.

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