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Meet the newest member of the IT team: the chief data officer

By Catherine Knowles
Mon 28 Sep 2015
FYI, this story is more than a year old

IT departments will soon add a chief data officers (CDO) to the team in order to remain successful as competition heats up.

Poornima Ramaswamy, Cognizant AVP enterprise information management, says a CDO can develop a data strategy, manage the information ecosystem and, most importantly, educate employees on the power and possibilities of data.

A CDO can also help more traditional companies compete with disruptive start-ups, she says.

“Young companies have a distinct advantage over their longer standing competitors and data is in their DNA.

“For these digital natives, it’s second-nature to put data and digital processes at the heart of their strategy and use data-based insights to make their decisions,” she says.

Traditional companies can close the gap by hiring a CDO, she says.

Ramaswamy says there are six steps that CDOs can take to nurture a thriving data culture that, along with a well-tuned data strategy, turns digital code into a competitive edge.

1. Map your organisation's use of data

Employees need to perceive data as a flexible asset that brings value to all areas of an organisation, says Ramaswamy.

CDOs can encourage this by mapping the organisation’s data supply chain into a big-picture view of available data - including who creates it, where it resides, and who consumes it.

Through this map, everyone can understand how their own data usage fits into the broader enterprise and who else might make use of it.

Data maps can also uncover ‘dark data’, or pockets of information that go largely unstudied but can yield valuable insights, such as machine data and customer service call logs.

For example, combining machine logs from a dispensing unit with geo-location data can help predict inventory patterns and improve order processing, says Ramaswamy.

2. Focus on the ‘art of the possible’

The hallmark of a data culture is the ability to understand the versatility of data and identify alternative uses for it, she says.

Employees regularly encounter data that is of little value to them but, when considered through the context of a data map, might be of value to someone else.

CDOs should encourage a mindset of finding alternative or unusual uses for data by sharing it with other teams.

According to Ramaswamy, an example of this is the popular TV series House of Cards, which Netflix developed by gathering routine viewer data and correlating it in new ways.

The streaming service discovered that subscribers who watched the original BBC series were also avid consumers of movies starring actor Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher.

When Netflix licenced the BBC series for a remake, it signed Spacey to star and Fincher to direct. 

3. Be transparent about data

Data can become a valued asset only if its accuracy is trusted, its provenance is well established, and its security is safeguarded, according to Ramaswamy.

CDOs can build trust in data by tracking its quality and lineage and providing multiple use cases depending on the data quality.

Consider a data set on customer spend that is missing attributes such as date of birth or address.

While such data is unusable for personalised offers, as here laser-like precision is required, it is still relevant for insights that can be drawn with broader strokes, such as understanding segment-based spending habits, she says.

4. Develop reward-sharing

Celebrating data successes is essential to promoting a healthy data culture, says Ramaswamy. Such recognition can occur in many forms, including videos, blogs, special-occasion gatherings or a section on the company portal.

The data initiatives selected for recognition should be aligned with the organisation’s innovation objectives, whether it’s reducing customer churn, increasing customer intelligence or penetrating new markets, she says.

5. Identify areas of friction

In a thriving data culture, information-sharing should be a way of life, not a source of tension, says Ramaswamy.

Consider the traditional roles of product engineering and sales - when sales funnels new information on customer needs and provides it to engineering, it might cause conflict because engineering’s main objective is to meet deadlines and budget requirements. However, for sales to meet its goal of boosting revenues, it needs products that meet customer needs, she says.

The CDO can help the two departments find common ground. By using data to prioritise features, teams can choose objectively between time to market and cost, she says.

For example, what does customer feedback reveal about feature preferences and customer satisfaction levels? Data can help to improve collaboration by keeping the focus on facts, not emotions, she says.

6. Elevate the conversation

Everyone in the organisation should be made aware of the real purpose behind a data culture: to sharpen the corporate strategy and drive innovation.

When employees see how data connects to corporate objectives, they will overcome their reluctance, apathy and fear about data-sharing.

CDOs can promote the link between data and strategy by hosting ideation sessions and hackathons to accelerate strategy and innovation efforts. Doing so can also help employees feel more engaged and part of a bigger mission, she says.

"Transitioning to a data culture requires dramatic change for traditional organisations, but by taking these six steps, CDOs can help their organisations move towards managing data as a strategic asset and embark on their journey towards creating a data culture," says Ramaswamy.

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