Does data require board-level representation?


Today’s business focus on all-things-digital has led to the increased influence of marketing in IT decision making. CMOs are a common fixture in the modern boardroom. As a result they often find more backing and more cash for initiatives that can lead to an improvement in customer experience. When setting out to implement their digital projects, they often discover a skills gap between the brand knowledge of the marketing department and the IT knowledge of the CIO. This is increasingly leading to the appointment of Chief Data Officers (CDOs) across Europe.

Many IT leaders will readily admit that they are too focused on day-to-day operational matters, which leaves them open to the challenge of the CDO. Time spent on mundane management means less time spent on the strategic development of the business.

While there is no practical reason why IT leaders can’t take the helm and lead organisational change alongside their marketing peers, reluctance still exists. Gartner says more than half (51 per cent) of CIOs are concerned that the digital torrent is coming faster than they can cope, and 42 per cent do not feel as if they have the right skills and capabilities in place to face the future with confidence.

One possible explanation is the rise of data. While CIOs can sometimes fill the gap between operations and marketing, they will struggle to have a complete understanding of the finer details of analytics. Data science is a highly specialised skill, and may benefit from someone with specific experience and training.

The analytical skills gap is a crucial concern. Analysis from IT magazine Computing shows that while 26 per cent of companies are using or planning to use cloud-based big data services, only 13 per cent of all businesses surveyed have the necessary skills.

There are attempts to address the data science skills gap. One pan-regional initiative is the European Data Science Academy (EDSA), which is led by the UK’s Open University and which includes a range of academic institutions. EDSA will help to address the demands for data scientists in the future. But organisations need to make the most of business intelligence now. So does your firm need another CDO? Could the appointment of a ‘Chief Data Officer’ on the executive board help the business recognise the importance of information?

The appointment of a data executive alone will not necessarily create an immediate shift in organisational culture. For this to happen, businesses must sponsor a change in behaviour across the organisation. This could be cultivated through the creation of a spin out data lab within the business, such as the focus on change undertaken by retailer Ocado, or the creation of the Connected Homes initiative at British Gas. These separate entities help prove the value of data to the wider business.

The CIO can potentially assume many of the responsibilities of a Chief Data Officer, but they need assistance. They need a trusted lieutenant who can lead the organisation’s approach to data, just as they might appoint an infrastructure manager to help run day-to-day IT operations.

The solution to the challenge of proving the value of data to the business seems to be to start small, to experiment and to receive sponsorship from the highest levels of the organisation. Someone senior, preferably the CEO, has to be the champion for data science. With that sort of senior backing, employees across the organisation begin to see how data can create a deeper insight into profitable operations and how the organisation can serve its customers in new and surprising ways. A new C-Suite executive is not always the answer.