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Does your company need a chief data officer?

Businessmen with world map, financial data and international time zone clocksBusinessmen with world map, financial data and international time zone clocks

What’s the difference between information and data? I found myself puzzling over this brain bender while reading new Forrester Research (FORR) about the rise of the Chief Data Officer. This is, apparently, an altogether different corporate species than the Chief Information Officer even though most of us those descriptors interchangeably.

Kidding aside, Forrester’s window in the mindsets of technology decision makers illustrate the fast rise of a separate and distinct CDO role over the past 12 months.

Fully 45% of the roughly 3,000 companies it polls regularly have assigned someone to oversee data strategy, while another 16% plan to do so within another year. “Top performers” boasting revenue growth of more than 10% were even more likely to include this role on their organizational charts.

The CDO’s job description varies dramatically, depending on the employer. For some companies, it’s about governance and compliance, about better organizing data so access is more tightly embedded into existing business processes. Others focus on the power of predictive analytics and insights, especially ones that help them become more customer-obsessed.

Just to further confuse matters, some companies appoint Chief Digital Officers, a title that winds up wanting the same acronym. On the face of it, digital strategists are focused on very different things than data gurus, such as automating paper-dependent business process. But both have the same central concern: making a company smarter by using the data it already has—and continues to collect—in smarter ways.

The mandate for choosing the specific technology to pull this off usually remains with the CIO. “Having a CDO isn’t a prerequisite to success, but in a data-driven world, where competitors glean actionable insights from their data, if you don’t have the ability to do that you better think twice about how you plan to achieve your goals and eventually survive,” notes Forrester analyst Jennifer Belissent. “The CDO role galvanizes an organization around the promise of data.

Right now, CDOs are equally as likely to report to the CEO as they are to the CIO. That underscores one of the more important aspects of this job: helping line-of-business executives and information technology get (and stay) on the same page. “The most successful CDO potentially works themselves out of a job by establishing a best practice and transferring it to another organization,” Forrester notes in its analysis, “Top Performers Appoint Chief Data Officers.” (Subscription required.)

By the way, you won’t find a CDO on the management teams of many highly visible “digital natives” Neither Uber nor Netflix has one. But that’s because data has been central their strategy since Day One.

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