Chief Data Officers: The New 'Oil' Barons


One hundred years ago, oil changed the economic, technological and political landscapes at every level of society. Going forward, the importance of data as a similarly omnipresent factor in life cannot be understated. From how we grow food to what we eat; from how diseases are fought to the design of molecules in the creation of an improved pharmacopeia that prolongs healthy life; from the reimagining of cities as interconnected smart centers to the daily orchestration of autonomous vehicles commuting in optimized routes – data is a cornerstone. And chiefly responsible for the collection, curation and management of the new black gold, the chief data officer (CDO) is the oil baron.

The Multidisciplinary Role of the CDO

What exactly is the scope of the role of chief data officer? What are the defining terms for the newly minted position within the organization? The exact nature of the job is nebulous in part because the defining characteristics are still, to a large extent, up in the air.

More than likely, the CDO’s role will involve the desegregation of CIO and CISO-like responsibilities – rolling together elements from both sides of the house. On one side, developing the necessary infrastructure for effective data collection, curation and management, the CDO position grows out of technological capacity of a CIO. However, in terms of an informational security and data governance perspective, the CDO’s key responsibilities extend from those of the traditional CISO.

One element of the CDO position that is often overlooked is business relevance. This may seem obvious, but one challenge in the arena of big data application that goes beyond security, governance and compliance is a question of where the business domain knowledge originates. While the much-touted data scientist may develop near-poetic algorithms that layer human intelligence over vast quantities of informational resources, a preternatural business instinct is not part of the job description. Providing that fixed point of business intelligence that acts as the guiding hand to the data scientist, and that contextualizes the math falls within the CDO’s scope of influence. 

In other words, the role requires a multidisciplinary, multifunctional approach to data movement, governance and framing. The chief data officer will provide stewardship along these lines. Still, while the role remains in flux and continues to evolve, CDOs will provide pivotal support to the enterprise in attempting to monetize data.

Catching a Ride on the Big Data Bandwagon

There is little doubt about the rapid ascension of the Chief Data Officer. In the coming years, the penetration of the CDO position in large enterprises is expected to be massive. And with hiring projections soaring, the validation from the market is clearly paralleled by the growing prevalence of big data.

The big data boom began with the realization that data was itself a commodity. This signaled a tectonic shift in how enterprises began to see the data available to them. Suddenly, all data was essential, and businesses everywhere were jumping on the big data bandwagon attempting to become ever more data-driven.

The oft-stated goal of becoming a “data-driven organization,” by now a cliché, is also the de facto reason given when it comes to justifying the development of strategic (and expensive) big data initiatives. Saying that one must be data-driven is another way of stating that data must be monetized, directly leveraged for insight or positioned for competitive advantage, but it’s easier said than done.

Slaying Big Data’s Two-Headed Dragon

Big data is a two-headed beast. The coupling of unprecedented volumes with rapidly expanding format varieties that businesses are now required to handle means that traditional methods of moving, integrating, securing and managing data within the digital enterprise are falling short.

It is sometimes true, that in big data scenarios, informational datasets are aggregated, chugging across the digital ocean as massive payloads of heterogeneous information. Other times, big data is more like an infinite stream of bicycle messengers originating from near-infinite sources delivering tiny, but vital, telemetric messages.

Both types of big data need a functioning, elastic and highly scalable pipeline that can carry and secure data and files of every shape, size and format. There is a realization that acquiring every ounce of data – down to the last drop – is paramount to hitting any data-driven milestone. But this is a major technological challenge to most organizations. And it is typically here that the two-headed beast of big data – volume plus variety – appears. The CDO must ride in and slay the dragon.

From tackling outdated infrastructure to adding missing business integration components such as high-frequency communications protocols and transformative capabilities, there are multiple obstacles to optimizing big data in the face of unprecedented volumes and extensive variety. In his or her role, the CDO has to leverage technological applications to address various technological obstructions that may prevent data of all shapes and sizes from moving efficiently.

To the CDO, there has to be a technological solution to piping all of the data to big data storage and analytics platforms. Often working in coordination with the CISO and CIO, the CDO then builds a mature multi-integration flow to retrieve event-based data, transactional files, database captures and message-base flows from primary ingestion pathways. This version of the big data pipeline provides reliability first and foremost, but also records all the necessary metadata for downstream application and analytics processing.

Moving information with varying degrees of data sensitivity with equilateral security allows the CDO to ensure the enforcement of corporate compliance and the meeting of industry-specific and governmental regulatory mandates. A little dry, sure. But it’s essential to avoiding major financial penalties and the risk of security violations concerning sensitive customer and partner data. Ultimately, to the CDO and the business, the ability to reliably and securely move files is essential to the targeted and timely circulation of data capital through the big data topography and constitutes the first primary steps toward data monetization.

Finally, by tapping into big data analytics, organizations are taking an experimental route to creating actionable insight. As such, the attempts to monetize big data thus far are both iterative and exploratory. In actual practice, when real-world big data projects are being spun up, the concentration of resources and effort on the analytical side leaves some pretty important integers out of the equation. Namely, how is the data operationalized in the first place? And, how can exploratory operations take place when delving into sensitive data violates compliance regulations? The real role of the CDO within the organization seems to be in answering both of these questions.

The New Barons of Data

In the near future, the work of the CDO in facilitating the application of data-driven, actionable intelligence will inevitably touch on every facet of human existence. At the end of empire, oil went from being an illuminant to a power source, and the entire world changed. In the current era, the great architect of 21st-century machinations is data, and the chief data officer has become an usher of our data-driven age.

About the Author:

John Thielens is the chief technology officer and data scientist at Cleo, a maker of enterprise data integration, managed file transfer and Big Data Gateway solutions.  He can be reached at

Edited by Alicia Young

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