Who are the current generation of Chief Data Officers?

This is a guest blogpost by Peter Jackson, Chief Data and Analytics Officer at Exasol.

The growing mainstream appreciation for quality data and its resulting insights has made the Chief Data Officer (CDO) role more acclaimed than ever. There is now a CDO in almost two thirds (65%) of companies – a huge jump since 2012 (12%).

The CDO understands the processes and drivers behind success based on data – making them distinct from the CIO. They provide a central point of responsibility and accountability for business clarity, efficiency, and performance and play an increasingly important role in shaping and influencing the strategic direction of a company.

As this role evolves, Exasol spoke to 250 active CDOs from across the UK, the US and Germany to find out more about these individuals and their experiences.
One promising finding is that the role is opening C-Suite doors to women who have been overlooked for senior executive roles for many decades. Of the CDOs we spoke to, 26% identified as female and 73% male – slightly bucking the IT industry’s gender talent gap. For example, when looking at the wider gender gap found across the technology workforce, 19% are female, whilst for data science roles in general, as few as 15% are women.

Commenting on this trend, talent specialists for C-Suite appointments, Savannah Group, told us at Exasol, “Organisations love to hire female talent. There are some incredible female CDOs and they are able to command a premium and cherry pick and shape the role more. It’s an amazing time to be a female CDO!”

Another surprise we uncovered in our research is that today’s generation of CDOs are strikingly young. According to M&A Executive Search, the average age of a typical C-suite member is 56, yet the majority of the CDOs we spoke to (55%) were between the age of 25-34 when they were first appointed to the role. Interestingly, 18% of the German respondents we spoke to were between 18-24 when they took on the role – more than double the number from the UK and the USA that were in that age bracket.

This more diverse pool of talent is encouraging as it’s not always easy for companies to find candidates. UK government research found that almost half of businesses (46%) have struggled to hire for roles that require data skills.

The opportunity for change

Diversity isn’t just about demographics, however. It’s also about having a diverse skillset, which is increasingly important in tech, particularly in data science.

As you might expect, 73% of the CDOs we spoke to had come from a technical background, and 69% say that most people in their teams are from a technical background too. But businesses suffering from tunnel vision and only hiring CDOs from purely technical backgrounds are potentially missing out.

Diversity is crucial when liberating data, as well as improving data accessibility and literacy across all levels of the organisation. If we concentrate too much on STEM in education, then we’ll have people who understand the numbers and stats, but they won’t necessarily have the skills to articulate the meaning of that data, turn it into actionable insights or communicate next steps around those insights to the business.

Derek Danois, CDO at GE Healthcare, for example, has seen real benefits from employing a diverse team. “I have a combination of people on my team. A physician, someone with a healthcare IT background and another with marketing background and MBA,” he said. “This makes for great conversation between them and a cross pollination of ideas. A marketing background is a good thing as we have to communicate across a number of business functions, and they are a strong liaison to the commercial part of the business to gather the data analysis they need. And they are someone that is credible at the table, for example, when discussing customer engagement.”

The CDO role is no longer simply about governing data – it’s about liberating it. Transforming data from a confusing, gated asset into an open, useful tool, accessible and actionable to everyone is realised on the top line (revenue) and bottom line (cost reduction and efficiency).

It’s exactly for this reason that it will be exciting to see the impact that this generation of CDOs, and the next, will have on business as we know it as organisations open their minds to new candidates.

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