, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

CDOs: Pressing the Need for a Chief Data Officer

Greg Duffy 15

Greg Duffy, MBA

Information Communications and Technology (ICT) is just like a human body. There is hardware (the bones and organs) as well as software (the brain etc.) and of course there are communication networks (the arteries, veins and nerves). Blood keeps us alive. We actively engage dedicated medical practitioners to oversee our blood supply and usage functions, especially those of sourcing, input, safe storage, processes and output.

DATA is the lifeblood of our corporate body. That is why we must energetically engage dedicated practitioners to oversee our data sourcing, inputs, safe storage, processes and outputs.

Recently, in a somewhat muted way, the ICT world’s managers and commentators are supporting the idea of a CDO: Chief Data Officer or a variation called Chief Digital Officer. While most current chatter speaks to this role as being a C-level one, side by side with the CEO, CFO, COO, CTO, CMO and others, I must admit I don’t want to argue the rank and title point until we successfully pass the ‘better get one in there” point. Titles are so last century. Today the role’s content and validity matter more. Value contribution outshines rank and office size repeatedly.

I believe each organization should designate a role for a chief data office, a strategic team or person whose purview includes the policy and governance of all aspects of the data, the blood quality, volume and flow. The CDO would focus daily on the capturing of the organization’s data, ensuring it is securely stored, is legally obtained, is efficiently accessed, is effectively utilized and is properly shared as openly as permitted or desired. And more. CIOs and CTOs or Directors of Technology can be freed to ensure technology infrastructure, 24/7/365 access, capacity, security, clouds and servers, desktops and mobiles and anything of hardware and software that uses, stores or accesses data in any form. Those are very big on-going critically important roles in their own right. The overall health of the data itself is distinctive.

Data is a vast growing resource, asset and strategic differentiator. Data can also be a problem, a liability, a risk when it is old, inaccurate, incomplete, used out of context or taken improperly. CDOs can be catalysts that lead the proactive management of the supply of Location data, Asset data, CRM data, Fleet data and more. The CDO would pay attention also to the use data of parks programs, transit, water/wastewater, parking, traffic and road data and all the other organizational information that is captured and yet not broadly shared internally or not accurately overlaid in decision support.

A CDO gives the CEO/CAO a go-to place or person for all matters about the data and their meta-data across the organisation. Just as the HR Director is the go-to regarding matters about resources that are in human form, the Finance Director for all resource matters which are in monetary form so the CDO is the one for all matters that are in digital form, the ones and zeros.

Let’s be clear though, we are speaking about a role, scope and context for data governance and not about whether this role consumes more than one person or more space than an ‘office of the chairperson’. That comes with planning and detailed role definition. However the impact, the authority and the emphasis must be seriously high. This is the go-to role. It is not casual, ignored or by-passed.

Location and GIS aware people are so very well qualified and attentive to all the issues of data oversight, management, interoperability and use. Geospatial people have actually been doing this all along, for over 30 years. Their sensitivity to the where factor is a very insightful attribute because almost everything that matters in government and business occurs with a where factor. A CDO would likely cheer for the location based data to be the glue that holds so many other data sets and digital applications together. GIS can often be the pedigree or quality test for any data set because if there are issues buried in a data set, trying to place the location efficiently might highlight problems otherwise unseen.

All employees are on the demand side of data in that they use various data in their daily roles. Some employees are only or also on the supply side because they create or capture data. They may then have opportunities to share with those on the demand side, the users. Nirvana is located where total available or potential supply meets the sum of expressed and unexpressed demand. A CDO can work to improve supply access and to champion efficiencies when demand gets met. S/he need not currently be a user or a supplier in the organization. But the broader and more-interdisciplinary their experience with data usage the better. The CDO acts as counsel, like a doctor and not as the mechanic, the actual fixer.

CDOs can be big picture enthusiasts even while they appear noticeably picky at the byte and comma level. Speaking of retentive, a CDO would be the one to lead the policy discussion on retention of aging data, poor quality data and third party data when appropriate. And they would likely be the one to decide when the ‘appropriate’ moment occurs.

In keeping with this concept, I would stress also the need to pursue ‘open data’ broadly and freely inside your organization before you congratulate yourselves too much on getting some token data out in the open publically. Those departments that don’t share outwardly as givers cannot logically expect to share inwardly as takers. A CDO can address this giver-taker matter as it exists in their organization. After all, silos are so last century. The process may not be pretty. The outcome will certainly be beneficial.

In 2003 GeoWorld Magazine published my article called “Whatever Happened to the ‘I’ in ‘IT’ and to my excited surprise it was later picked up and republished in Spanish in Cadwire, then another world level e-zine. The interest in data was there, and long before the haunts of big data. My inspiration at the time was a series of discussions the Board of Directors at GITA (of which I was one) was recycling because GITA’s mission was as the Geospatial Information and Technology Association. The emphasis had been thought out to use ‘AND’ in its name. Then as now many in the GIS world saw the value in highlighting the data, the information, the intelligence as well as the hardware, software and networks that captured, stored and shared the geospatial info.

The essence of that 2003 piece was:

  • we have so terribly missed the duality, the mutual equal advancement of “Information” AND

“Technology” where the information is as key as the technology because separately they are inert and useless.


The opportunity for ‘I’ and ‘T’ is all the more critical today. Some unknown number of years ago there was only one ‘C’ level office. The CEO or CAO was alone for a very long time. Organizations are flatter now, with more specialists at that senior table because we understand better their importance and having voices for those critical accountabilities derived from their roles. The time has come for Data to have its own Chief practitioner, its own centre of attention, its own focus on the governance of an organization’s data. The need for a CDO is as critical as the need for a blood specialist.

As you can guess I am thrilled about this as I see so many benefits that can be obtained by such a role.

I hope you agree (in principle at least). Please share your thoughts.

The Woodfield Mgmt Group logo_2015

Related Articles

May 5: Vancouver: NRCan Discovery Centre Science Open House

Come talk to scientists in Canada’s oldest science agency at a Canada 150 Open House.  Visitors can check out over…

EnerGIS 2017: Call for Papers & Scholarship Opportunities

EnerGIS 2017 6/5/2017 to 6/6/2017 Suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Join us for our 5th annual conference June 5th and 6th  2017!…

Geospatial Earth Observation Using Blimps, Balloons and Kites

These days drones are all the rage. Nevertheless, there are other ways to collect data from the sky! Blimps, balloons and kites…