The evolution of the modern data leader: what the future holds

This is a guest blogpost by Cindi Howson, Chief Data Strategy Officer at ThoughtSpot.

It’s no secret that data lies at the heart of the modern organisation – and data leaders are the pulse. As data becomes more ingrained in daily operations, businesses that create and nurture a data culture will maintain a competitive advantage and set themselves up for growth against economic headwinds. Leaders that encourage data-driven decisions, foster a data fluent culture, and bring to market innovative solutions to create new revenue streams, will be at the forefront of their industries.

How have modern data leaders evolved?

First generation data leaders are focused on protecting and safeguarding data.  Typically reporting into IT, the potential roles, value and use-cases of data are often seen as an afterthought, rather than a strategic enabler. Modern data leaders have a more value-based focus, thinking about the whole lifecycle of digital interactions to data products that improve customer experience, increase operating efficiencies, and even battle climate change. They also think beyond internal data only, leveraging external data that may give a better view of the supply chain or customer preferences. Data sharing is accomplished using a modern data stack that natively supports data sharing versus legacy and brittle processes such as file transfer protocol (FTP).

These data leaders are also highly collaborative, working in an agile way with business stakeholders and technology partners to foster innovation that delivers value, with ruthless prioritisation. There is not an “us versus them” mindset between IT and business, or the data team and business; it’s just “we.”  The pace of innovation is frenetic and technology debt can saddle an organisation to the point of bankruptcy. The best data leaders make decommissioning and shedding of technical debt a priority to enable room for innovation.

Data privacy plays a critical role in the modern data leader

The modern data leader knows that respecting data privacy while also supporting personalisation is a delicate balance. Once trust is broken, it is difficult to restore. Customers want both and yet trust in public and private institutions is at an all-time low in the UK, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Customers have a higher trust of businesses while citizens have a greater distrust of government institutions. This means that as data is collected on citizens either through national health or facial recognition systems, ethics and unintended harms must be addressed.

Organisations today store an increasing amount of data and mishandling this data can directly lead to brand damage, revenue loss and hinder potential business growth. A recent IBM report found that 83% of organisations studied in 2022 experienced more than one data breach, with an average cost of £3.46m. Data privacy, therefore, needs to be baked into an organisation to ensure analysts are not replicating data into less secure systems, such as spreadsheets.

The importance of innovation: Generative AI

Data leaders are also in a unique position to unlock the value of data by embracing innovations in generative AI, such as OpenAI’s GPT and Google’s Bard. Throughout 2023, generative AI will be infused throughout the data and analytics workflow to accelerate the creation of data products by business domains in ways that are only limited by imagination and constrained by technical debt and legacy thinking. First movers who embrace human-in-the-loop and AI ethics will have a lasting and outsized advantage, both for their company and their careers.

Modern data leaders aren’t just using data to make better business decisions or respond to market changes more quickly, they are making a difference to the planet. Creating this symbiotic relationship between their customers, their company, and the good of the planet is enabled by helpful, accessible, and reliable data.

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