How on-demand data officers can help fill the knowledge gap

The role of chief data officer is much in demand. Photo: Shutterstock

Data is an invaluable resource for driving commercial decision-making yet a dearth of people with the requisite skills in the UK has prevented some businesses from exploiting their numbers to the full. On-demand chief data officers could yet prove the best way to unlock data value, writes Jason Foster.

The profile of the chief data officer (CDO) has increased dramatically over the past decade, but it’s still relatively new to many companies. Some business leaders have realised they have a need to hire a CDO, but many organisations can’t stretch their budgets to take on a CDO on a full-time basis.

Then there’s the added challenge of recruiting for the role. There are currently only 681 people with the title of CDO in the UK on LinkedIn. Demand massively outstrips supply.

Just over 50% of organisations have already appointed a CDO, with another 18% planning to do so in the future. Because of this, CDOs command six-figure salaries that put them out of reach of many SMEs and growing businesses.

CDOs are a crucial hire for any organisation looking to unlock the value of their data. Companies sit on a mountain of data, including marketing and sales, finance, HR and operations and to store, process, analyse and use this data effectively requires a specific set of skills.

They have a broad role, encompassing parts of other c-suite roles. But some companies mistake it with the chief information officer (CIO). However, whereas the CIO deals with the technology, infrastructure and software/data engineering of a company, the CDO should be more commercially minded. As Pete Williams, former analytics head at M&S explains: “The CIO can have responsibility to ingest data. But for a CDO, we are talking about a level of commercial awareness that needs to come from the business.”

They look at how data can be used by a business to gain a competitive and commercial edge. CDOs are more important than ever, especially now the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has become a business-as-usual requirement. Indeed, the hefty fine (up to €20m or 4% of global revenue, whichever is greater) for infringing GDPR has helped to elevate data governance to board-level status. There’s nothing like a potentially business-crippling fine to gain c-suite attention. A CDO’s salary is small change, compared to the costs of breaching GDPR.

This is why CDOs are so hard to come by. They don’t just need technical know-how but also a commercial mindset. Plus, their role inevitably makes them a highly influential figure in an organisation, so they need to understand how to speak to different stakeholders and get buy-in.

Because the CDO role has been around for a relatively short time, hiring them isn’t as simple as finding someone with years of CDO experience under their belt. Often they will be new to the job title. Also, their role may vary depending on an organisation’s data maturity.

The strengths that companies need to identify in an CDO may depend on the company’s business goals. For example, if you’re primarily looking at unlocking product value, then your CDO should have a background in product development, logistics and taking to market. That said, the underlying skill of every good CDO is strong leadership and an ability to communicate company-wide.

It’s worth noting that many current CDOs also stick to their role and organisation for a long time because it is a new position and they need to build their credibility and experience. However, the type, style and focus for a CDO changes over time, so some flexibility is required.

The advent of the CDO-on-demand

This leaves organisations in a tough position. Deciding to create a CDO role is one thing, but to find and hire the right one for your needs and budget is another challenge. That’s where a CDO-on-demand service can prove extremely useful – especially for SMEs and non-profits. An on-demand service can bridge the recruitment gap while an organisation seeks a full-time hire. It can supplement an existing CDO function (in a mentoring/consultative capacity) and allow a business to mix-and-match different CDO styles as needs evolve.

Especially when exploring data at an early stage, having a CDO who comes in on a temporary basis can be invaluable. They could help audit an organisation’s current data, consult on a data strategy, champion its use across the company, and develop a sustainable approach to using data in the business (also improving its data literacy and maturity). Investing in a full-time CDO can be a pricey process − having one on-demand could be more manageable.

It’s an approach that several companies, including the National Trust and Soho House have been exploring with benefits including expert insights on data strategy, clearly defined data governance and greater data literacy developed across the company. Having a CDO hub available to the board offers the expertise of CDOs, but without the commitment of an annual salary.

As more business leaders start prioritising data in their organisations, they will realise the need for a CDO to lead the charge. But they will struggle to find the right individual in the current skills climate, especially as business needs evolve and changes the type of CDO required.

Many will look to CDOs on-demand as a potential solution. Along with the exponential growth in businesses using data, it seems likely that we will see increasing numbers of CDOs working on an on-demand basis.

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