Budge up CIO, make room for the chief data officer

By John Leonard
13 Dec 2013 View Comments
Mario Faria

The boardroom is about to become more crowded as organisations seek to make more of their data.

That's the view of Mario Faria, who was recently appointed chief data officer (CDO) at cloud analytics firm ServiceSource having previously held that role at Equifax subsidiary Boa Vista in his native Brasil.

Further reading

"Companies of all types are realising that data can be used as an economic asset," Faria told Computing. "But who will manage it? The CIO is far too busy... almost every company has an IT backlog right now."

The CDO, as Faria describes the role, is not necessarily someone with an IT background - he himself was previously involved in digital marketing. Rather it is someone who can forge a link between IT and the principal users of data such as sales, marketing and senior management.

"This is the best moment to be one as the rules are not yet formed," Faria said, explaining that essentially he wrote his own job description at Boa Vista.

"The CDO should look at data and how you can make money from data," he said. "That's it. How you do that will vary. Some CDOs report to IT, some to sales, some to marketing, some to the CEO.

"The CDO is like a conductor in an orchestra," he continued. "The musicians are the data scientists, data governance people, security, data quality, compliance officials, development and acquisition staff ... you need to make sure they are all playing the right tune."

But is there really room in the C-suite for yet another C? Won't the existing board members feel crowded out?

"There are some CIOs who say 'No, no, no! The data function is my role. Go away!'," Faria conceded. "But the most mature CIOs understand that the CDO role is complementary. As a CDO the CIO is your peer. You have to work together to solve problems in the sales or marketing functions. The CDO is about the 'why', the CIO is about the 'how'."

There is less danger of stepping on the toes of the CEO, but part of the CDO role is knowing how to convey the message. After all, many CEOs function largely on a mixture of gut instinct and networking and may not welcome someone telling them that the numbers say they are wrong.

"A lot of CEOs are Type-A personalities. You have to be humble enough to express the story in a way they can understand and accept. 'The data says something, maybe you should take that path - but it's your decision'," Faria play-acted. "It's all about people skills, communication skills," he explained.

Companies embarking on the journey to make more of their data should be prepared for the long haul. For this reason there needs to be someone at board level to oversee the transformation.

"If you want to succeed in data you need at least two years," Faria said. "First you need to create a single version of the truth, a single logical repository for all the data.

"Then quickly you need to prove that you are making money with the data, for example more savings on marketing or better customer engagement, otherwise you won't get money for your needs.

"The CDO is responsible for driving better use of the data by sales, marketing and finance, making sure that everyone is using the same tool on the same version of the truth, and making sure the data is being used properly according to the compliance rules.

"In a few years the [new practices] should be mingled throughout the organisation, and the best organisations are where the workings are transparent, so it's not a barrier to the business."

Something of an evangelist for this new role, Faria is part of a group at the MIT Data Science Initiative under Dr Richard Wang that explains to large organisations how to better manage their data. At Boa Vista, he says, he had to rationalise a system that had a throughput of 10 million transactions per day with data sitting in 10,000 different repositories.

"You have to be resilient," he laughed. "It's not just about data. You have to succeed at managing people; you have to succeed at implementing processes; and you have to succeed at using technology."

Faria used Lean concepts and Data Management Body of Knowledge (DMBOK) to improve data quality at Boa Vista. "What PMI did for project management DMBOK is doing for data management," he said.

At ServiceSource, whose customers include many IT giants, the challenge may be equally as big. "We have to do data workflow better than our customers do," he said.

So, budge up CIO. Make room for one more seat at the boardroom table.

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