Understanding the Mind of the Chief Data Officer

The Pink Elephant Juxtaposition

As more and more organizations attempt to make smarter, data-inspired decisions, they are discovering that their data management strategy is not as mature as it needs to be. Hence, a growing number of organizations, including several federal agencies, have appointed a chief data officer, or CDO, to help them transform data into a strategic asset that can be used to solve real problems or help work streams become more efficient and effective.

That points to why the Harvard Business Review called the CDO the “sexiest job of the 21st century.” But that affirmation should be “taken with a grain of salt,” according to Anthony Scriffignano, Ph. D., the Chief Data Scientist at Dun & Bradstreet. “Organizations are completely overwhelmed with data right now, and to just say ‘We’ll bring someone on board to go get all the data and then we’ll figure out what it means’ just makes no sense.”

The role of a CDO is not so cut and dry. It is a role that has yet to be clearly defined, and many organizations aren’t quite sure what the perfect candidate even looks like.

The role of a CDO is not so cut and dry. It is a role that has yet to be clearly defined, and many organizations aren’t quite sure what this new role entails or what the perfect candidate even looks like for that matter. “Yeah, it's an exciting job, but it's also one that is pretty nuanced and is not as autonomous as it might sound,” says Scriffignano.

So exactly what are some of the traits that make the perfect CDO and how can they ensure their own relevance and success in the organization? Scriffignano says an effective CDO is really “someone who can tell stories with data and understand what the data means.” In other words, “They can ask the right questions in a world where there's way too much data to answer those questions and still get meaning out of it.”

In terms of how they think, the CDO needs to be relentlessly curious, yet think logically and scientifically. “They [CDO] should help frame the question in a way that it can be meaningfully answered with data, not just answer the question of the data presented. The CDO should participate in articulating the right question and then help answer it.” It’s not so much about supplying the right answers, says Scriffignano, but about being able to understand if you’re asking the right question.

Most importantly, the CDO has to be forward-looking – progressive enough to be ready to address new opportunities that may have not existed in the past.

“A lot of the skills that we have right now are very regressive," Scriffignano says. "We look at data from the past and we try to learn from it to predict what's going to happen in the future.” But that can be very dangerous according to Scriffignano. With the amount of data being created today – 90% of it has been created in the last two years alone – we are entering uncharted territory.

“What happens with new types of data that you've never seen before?” asks Scriffignano. “You can't look at the past, you need what's called non-regressive methods to use data like that. Your brain does it every day. If a pink elephant stumbled into a room, even though you've never seen one before and you believe that such a thing can't possibly exist, you would do something. Your brain would process that data and do something.”

“There's a process of triage that has to go on in your head,” explains Scriffignano. “You have to be able to immediately make a decision about value, threat and opportunity. There are a number of factors that play into whether or not you take that next step in deciding what to do with that data.” Does the pink elephant offer any real value to your company, or is it simply a ostentatious distraction that will eventually fade away? It’s up the CDO to be able to process this new type of information. “Imagine algorithms that could do things like that,” states Scriffignano. “That's the kind of thing that we need to be thinking about.”

So, do you have the right individual in place to ask the right questions when the pink elephant in the room enters?