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Revitalize your C-suite strategy: the CDO as an agent for change

C-suite strategy: the CDO as an agent for change

In this blog, we take a look at some of the broad challenges chief data officers (CDOs) face when it comes to defining their role within the business – and how doing so effectively can lead to greater data-driven results for an organization’s C-suite strategy.

Elsewhere, we’ve covered the impact of outdated or inadequate tech has on a CDOs ability to succeed. Our new study, The Journey to CDO, provide the findings for both articles.

The CDO is one of the hottest leadership jobs in 2021. It is a permanent fixture in almost two thirds (65%) of companies – an explosion since 2012 (up from 12%). With data increasingly recognized as being pivotal to business operations, and with growing mainstream appreciation for quality data and resulting insights, the CDO role provides a central point of responsibility for business clarity, efficiency, and performance.

Yet Gartner predicts that half of CDOs will fail. Indeed, Mario Faria, managing vice-president of Gartner Research, has said that: “people, culture and internal resistance can create formidable roadblocks” to the success of the CDO. In some regions, more than a third of those we surveyed had limited information on what the role entailed.

Simply put, there are wildly disparate perceptions of what a chief data officer actually is – across industries and organizations and within single businesses. The CDO should bring clarity, but many lack guidance, are misunderstood or don’t know how they fit into the wider C-suite strategy.

The mirage of the CDO role

Given the relative infancy of the role and the broad set of responsibilities the it can include, it’s understandable that trying to establish a general, all-encompassing definition of the CDO role will be challenging.

If an organization is creating a role for the first time, for example, teething issues are only natural. Three in five CDOs (60%) specifically cite a lack of support for people looking to move into the role. And many hadn’t considered the role before being offered the job as a promotion (65%). These figures aren’t great news, but they’re understandable.

However, the issue is that many established CDOs are struggling from the same problems. Half (50%) the active CDOs we spoke to believe that the value of their role isn’t properly recognised. And 46% agree that they’re dealing with overly ambitious expectations. 

Digging a little deeper, we’ve found that 41% believe that the expectations of their role are unclear. And a third simply state that the C-suite doesn’t understand their role. Our research suggests that this varies depending on the maturity of the role in a region. The figure is 32% in Germany compared with half (51%) in the UK, for example.

Affecting real change in C-suite strategy

What makes all this particularly concerning is that the ideology of a company trickles down from senior management. How can employees buy into the changes a CDO suggests if the C-Suite doesn’t empower them?

37% of CDOs specify a lack of C-Suite buy-in as a direct obstacle to cultural change. More than half say that the leadership isn’t willing to embrace the change needed to become a data-driven business. 

As a result, the company opinion of businesses seems to reflect the scepticism and misunderstandings of senior management, with similar statistics. 42% of CDOs face a resistance to change within their organization.

This all actually leads to reducing CDO tenure, driving them out of the organization. Direct reasons raised for CDOs choosing to move on include members of the C-Suite being difficult to work with, and a lack of support or resources. 

No wonder, as Gartner has suggested, that half of CDOs ‘fail’. You can only bang your head against a brick wall for so long.

Clarify, don’t obstruct

There is a need for serious conversation around how individual CDOs can contribute to the wider C-suite strategy. This goes for new hires, but it also applies to more senior, in-post data leaders too.

Two processes need to take place. Firstly, organizations need to properly educate themselves on what CDOs can offer, before defining what that role should entail in their structure. Such education can happen through conversation with successful organizations or appointees, or a proper internal assessment of their weaknesses.

Secondly, the C-suite must realise that to make the most of data, their CDO must have the scope to go beyond simply governing data, to the point of liberating, democratizing and developing insights from data. The CDO must be trusted by the C-suite from the get-go in order to do so.

Giving CDOs trust and clarity will enable them to enact genuine data-driven change. Only then will those in the role live up to the hype and opportunity.