Guest post – Which generation of Chief Data Officer are you?

This blog was originally published on LinkedIn and is featured on Collibra’s blog with the author’s consent

Are you evangelizing or delivering value from data at pace? Are you making change or adding value? How do you build a better Chief Data Officer? Join me for #CDOSummerSchool #DataLiteracy.

Recently, I joined Carruthers and Jackson in collaboration with Collibra for the first week of the Chief Data Officer Summer School — pandemic edition! Run remotely, it gives us data leaders the chance to learn, connect and discuss what we do: getting the right data (and insight) to the right people, at the right time and in the right way, so they can make the decisions that help our organizations thrive, connect and deliver. In short, making data meaningful, valuable and valued.

Week one could be summed up in one phrase: Know Thyself. Caroline Carruthers and Peter Jackson, the Batman and Robin hosts of our journey, focused on the person, the Chief Data Officer or CDO.

They explored our journey so far, where do Chief Data Officers come from? Anywhere from technology, data, analytics, to operations, marketing and increasingly data science. No matter where you come from a passion for data and credibility are important for any CDO. I loved that Caroline and Peter didn’t quite agree on how important a technology/data/analytics background is, because it highlights how much this space is evolving.

They asked, what might our career path look like, which was interesitng to reflect on. I work as head of data at a UK central government department where I share the CDO responsibilities with my line manager. The Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) Framework (for roles and skills in government) doesn’t (yet) have a role for a Chief Data Officer in the data job family. The list shared helped me consider where I might grow alongside my DDaT role as a Service Owner.

We wondered if and why every organization needs a CDO. This was the most exciting and valuable part of the workshop as we talked about first, second and even third generation Chief Data Officers.

In summary, a first-generation CDO is mostly about change-making, evangelizing data, doing the hard work to put in the foundations like data governance, encouraging a data culture, putting data in the boardroom and embedding data in the everyday language so the organization can surface, build and grow their culture and values with data that is usable, useful and put into use.

A second generation CDO is mostly about delivering value, though, it’s a pendulum not a spectrum. Ideally, a CDO will be doing both the change-making and the value delivery. You’re more likely to spend your time here, in the latter part of the pendulum as second generation. In some ways, this can feel more useful, exciting and valuable to an organization but you need both so you don’t come unstuck.

We touched briefly on third-generation Chief Data Officers. If you consider the first-gen as the wild west, second-gen as the industrial revolution (aptly put by Caroline and Peter), then third generation is the digital revolution. Here, you are accelerating away from using what was described as ‘vertical strikes’ to build your foundations and deliver without doing too much — boiling the figurative ocean.

As a third-generation CDO, you’re at the cutting edge of delivery, in a culture of data use, with a data literate workforce or ‘data citizens’ who can read, write, argue with and make decisions off the back of data. Here the c-suite don’t pay lip service to data, they embrace it, use data and evidence in their decisions, with their living strategy, and everyone knows (and can see through the data) how their actions add or take away from delivering. It is the nirvana of the CDO.

So, how do we get there? We discussed grass-roots vs top-down support, the dangers of burning out and more. Some takeaways here:

  • You set the level of what the CDO can achieve by where you position them in the organization. That’s before you even consider the people, resources and capacity they need to succeed. The solution? Don’t invite your CDO to a full table without giving them the right support. Understand your ambitions for data require real investment. Thanks to Kat Duffy for this analogy “Sometimes it feels more like they’re the vegans who got a half-hearted invite to a barbecue and knew they had to go…”
  • Be honest about where you are as an organization. I recommend ‘taking the temperature’ so to speak of your maturity in using data, your technology, your people and your governance. You’ll need to commit to working through organization-wide changes, together, to make a real difference. This is especially true if you’re hiring a first-generation CDO.
  • Manage expectations carefully to avoid disappointment. When we talk about legacy, we’re talking more than just code, technology or systems. Attitudes are a legacy, failure of previous efforts are a legacy, organization culture is a legacy and these things can build up to inertia that’s hard to shift. An exciting change program can be one way to build enthusiasm but that wanes quickly if people aren’t getting what they want as fast as they need it. Vertical strikes are one way to both build foundations and deliver value quickly. However, don’t underestimate the challenge of change.

Looking forward to next week when we look at maturity assessments. Having just presented our maturity assessment findings and recommendations to an enthusiastic board, I can’t wait to find out what others are doing in this space.


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