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Judgment Day for Chief Data Officers

When it comes to hot technology job titles, look no further than chief data officers (CDOs) and chief science officers (CSOs). Amid information overload, CEOs are leaning on their CDOs to more effectively gather, manage, protect and monetize data. It sounds great on paper. But I sense that judgment day is coming for many CDOs.

In some ways, CDOs inherit complex problems — some technical, some cultural — that many CIOs often failed to solve. Most specifically: How do you transform your IT department from a cost center into a profit center? Cloud and mobile computing have further complicated the situation, as department heads and employees effectively activated their own applications and devices without corporate IT’s approval.

Suddenly, “some” corporate data (in ERP, CRM and other systems) transformed into a “big data” tidal wave across structured and unstructured systems (social media, apps, etc.). Along came the chief marketing officer (CMO), who demanded new ways to gather, analyze and monetize sales leads — even as many CIOs tried to lock down IT systems from new cloud and mobile security threats.

Mr. Or Mrs. Fix It

Amid the CIO and CMO priority gap, the chief data officer was born. A savior to restore order across many warring tribes — corporate IT, marketing, sales, finance, partners and customers.

  • An external spokesperson to tell the world, “Don’t worry, we’re committed to data privacy and compliance.
  • An internal executive to transform data into dollars.

And soon… a potential fall guy (or girl) for many big data projects that don’t deliver the goods.

Who Could Possibly Meet These Expectations?

Don’t get me wrong: Many CDOs — empowered by executive teams and staff buy-in — are doing a stellar job. The problem at some companies involves lofty employee, customer and investor expectations. A few examples:

  • IBM points to big data, analytics and Watson as the building blocks for a company turnaround.
  • Venture capitalists point to Hadoop, NoSQL and other big data tools as can’t-miss investments that enterprises must consume.
  • Government agencies point to CDOs as the data wizards who will fulfill open government mandates.
  • Aging businesses point to newly hired CDOs as transformation agents who will deliver new apps and tools that unlock new revenue opportunities.
  • Talent and HR recruiters point to data science as the job opportunity of the future that will solve the world’s problems — food, medicine, climate change, etc.

Right now, CDOs and their data lieutenants are painted as business saviors. Lock your data scientists in a room with a Hadoop cluster, and at some point they’ll emerge with a formula that delivers world peace.

By late 2015 or early 2016 — as some big data projects stumble a bit — I suspect the CDO halo will lose some of its luster.

Just remember, folks: Like an NFL quarterback, you’re never as good (or bad) as your press coverage suggests. The same is true for CDOs. As a group, these folks are incredibly smart. But they’re tasked with some of the greatest challenges facing business and IT…

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