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Quality over quantity - The making of a modern Chief Data Officer

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It’s a tough gig for Chief Data Officers (CDOs). With the volume and sources of data increasing, CDOs are increasingly tasked with centralising complex data sets and gleaning insights to support all areas of the business, from product development to marketing and sales.

To gain more insight into the increasingly complicated life of a CDO, Alex Dean, the CEO and Co-founder of Snowplow Analytics, details how he feels modern CDOs could and should be succeeding.

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With data now considered “gold” within modern organisations, it’s the CDO that’s often left to face questions as to why their organisation may fail to truly understand customers in the way that digital powerhouses such as Amazon do. This can inadvertently leave many feeling disconnected from the brands they represent. 

With CDOs often not given much time to demonstrate their value, they need to act with a sense of urgency and find ways to deliver incremental value. One of the most critical ways to do this is by improving data quality. 

The evolving CDO role

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On top of mounting pressure to do more with data, CDOs also typically oversee a range of different responsibilities, such as jurisdiction over the building of a robust, broad-scale data platform, directing a team of analysts and data scientists, and creating an operational model for data utilisation. At the same time their role is ever-evolving - increasingly expanding from focusing primarily on technology and data management, to encompass culture and HR.

With many now tasked with revamping the organisational structure and developing a data-driven culture, CDOs need a broader skillset alongside technical excellence in engineering and analytics. Leaders are expected to demonstrate skills such as communication, negotiation and conflict resolution, to help build capability and make data intrinsic within organisations. 

Competing against data-natives

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For CDOs within established organisations, competing with data-native competitors such as Amazon and Netflix can be an impossible task. These companies were born with data ingrained from the start, with a data-driven culture inherent throughout.

Today’s leading digital products, like those built by Spotify or Netflix, are the result of a rigorous development process, combined with a culture that values experimentation and makes decisions informed by data. This holistic commitment to learning and iterating based on learnings from behavioural data is one of the things that makes them so competitive. But for those non-data native companies, replicating the same culture and ethos isn’t as simple. 

Building a data quality mindset throughout an organisation may require a cultural evaluation and change. CDOs will need to assess their existing data culture, determine the level of data maturity of both the data team and organisation, and educate and inject data quality into this evolving data culture. 

Adopting a data quality mindset and culture does not happen overnight and requires evaluation, planning and education. According to the Gartner 2021 CDO Survey, CDOs are critical to digital transformation and fostering a data-driven culture. But for CDOs to be able to play this expanded role, access to good quality data is a crucial prerequisite.

Improving data quality

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Another problem for CDOs is that they are often held responsible for failures in digital transformation. However, the root cause of the problem is often a lack of investment in good quality data.

This is in part due to factors such as customer opt outs, technical challenges around implementing tracking, human error and privacy-based measures like Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) which make collecting high quality data difficult. However, it’s also down to the fact that previously many companies didn't need high quality behavioural data: the need only arises when organisations start using it to execute more analytically demanding use cases.

Another common problem is a focus on collecting for volume rather than quality. Not only is this ineffective, but it risks seeding the business with bad data that will undermine decision-making. CDOs need to move away from a "track everything" approach and instead adopt a more intentional approach to data collection that enables a more deliberate and transparent use of data. The aim should be to collect the richest available set of data points with each event tracked.

Progressive CDOs are paying close attention to how they collect their data and are moving away from commercially packaged analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, which offer no visibility into how the data is processed, to more intelligent tools like behavioural data platforms.

Succeeding as a modern CDO

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Today organisations compete on understanding rather than product, and it is those that use data to drive that understanding who will win. While each organisation will have a different data strategy and vary in the maturity and effectiveness of their data function, one thing that is consistent is the need for CDOs to be able to drive value from their data.

While the role of the CDO is undoubtedly expanding, this doesn’t mean success is impossible. Driving value from data requires the right data toolkit to collect, analyse and leverage data, and the most successful CDOs will build a data infrastructure and platform that democratises data access in the organisation. 

By investing in a behavioural data platform to collect, build and manage high quality behavioral data, CDOs can confidently meet growing demands and ensure that their business doesn’t fall behind in the race against the big name-disrupters. 

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