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IT vs. the chief data officer: How to avoid turf wars

Esther Shein Freelance writer

Instead of seeing the chief data officer (CDO) as one more encroachment on its territory, IT should align with CDOs, influence their vision, support and enhance their projects, and help spin all that data into gold.

As the first chief data officer for the city of San Diego, Maksim Pecherskiy and his IT partners have done precisely that. Pecherskiy knows the spotlight has been on him the past few years as he has conducted a citywide data inventory—which had never been done before—and established an open data portal accessible to the public.

Pecherskiy is part of the city’s performance and analytics department (PANDA), which he said is "lateral" to IT. However, for the first three of his four years as CDO, he was physically located in IT, which "ended up working out amazing." He credits that to having a background working in information systems, "so that common language lets us work together really well."

Pecherskiy has a standing weekly meeting with CIO Jonathan Behnke, who lets him know what's going on with servers and the data centers and what is moving to the cloud. Pecherskiy, in turn, tells Behnke what his department is working on, including automation efforts with the data catalog.

That close collaboration with IT also extends to working with cybersecurity staff to ensure that the analysis and governance work PANDA is doing isn't exposing any personally identifiable information (PII) as open data.

Pecherskiy didn't experience a battle with IT, but that is not always the case. Here's how to to avoid turf wars.

CDO roles on the rise

The CDO role has evolved as enterprises have come to understand the value of collecting and analyzing data to gain insights that lead to better customer experiences. As a result, the role is gaining prominence within organizations. Gartner estimated that by 2019, some 90% of large organizations will have a CDO.

CDOs "are here to stay," said Brian Hopkins, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. Whom they report to varies by organization. Today, 38% of CDOs fall under the CEO, and 25% report to the CIO, according to Forrester.

The analyst firm's numbers are virtually the same as in 2017, when 40% of CDOs reported to the CEO and 22% reported to the CIO. The maturity of an organization's data culture will have a bearing on whether the CDO and IT work cohesively or with friction, Hopkins said.

Forrester defines a mature company as one that is "obsessed with customers and understands them" and is turning that understanding into ways of creating excellent experiences and better ways to engage them through technology, Hopkins added.

As companies mature, they recognize that a database-focused way of working with data is not successful, nor does it help them make the kinds of decisions they need to make to ensure they’re successfully exploiting data for insights and actions, Hopkins said.

"In the past, firms have used the sound reasoning that 'all my data is in database technology,' so therefore, all the people who know the data tend to be people who work in IT."
Brian Hopkins

"So we tend to see [CDOs] moving up the value chain from simple management of data … to governance of data," Hopkins said, "which is more about defining policies for securing and accessing data, up to data exploration, which is making data available for different analytic uses." From there, organizations begin taking action on data and doing data analytics, he said.

When tensions rise

Whether there is natural tension between the CDO and IT depends on where the CDO came from, Hopkins said. CDOs who come out of IT might struggle with the new role and face issues over who retains decision authority over data, but they are still technologists, which makes the relationship easier, as Pecherskiy said he's found.

But when a CDO comes from the marketing department, for example, "that creates tensions, since data is so intertwined with IT," Hopkins explained.

Ben Lorica, chief data scientist at O'Reilly Media, said that both IT and the business units have buy-in up front.

"A CDO, if they are hired correctly, always builds alliances with IT."
Ben Lorica

Who ultimately controls data is neither a pure tech decision nor a pure data decision, Hopkins said. Another issue is budgetary: If funding for data initiatives comes from the CIO's budget or if the CDO receives funding to do things the CIO used to do, the CIO is losing some control, Hopkins said, and that might add to the tension.

Evolution of the data-centric culture

Matt Meyer is grappling with these issues. In his role as vice president of digital innovation at Kloeckner Metals, he's the de facto chief data officer for the company's US operations. Kloeckner's CIO is based in Germany, so Meyer reports to the US CEO.

Because the digital group is only a few years old, Meyer is keenly aware of the need to ensure that "IT is not forgotten in this effort to modernize the organization, because they have a critical role." IT is part of the solution when it comes to working effectively with data, Meyer said, "but they don’t work in a vacuum."

Kloeckner is starting to develop a data-centric culture, and Meyer says his group is working with the business to extract and analyze requested data—something IT didn't have the bandwidth for.

"That’s the big change; we don’t want the data team to get buried in the traditional IT structure, and we want them to work alongside" IT and the business units, he said.

There's no doubt there are two sides of the aisle, Meyer said: the IT side and the digital side. "We have to be closely aligned and understand we're in this together." He acknowledged that when digital teams are formed, sometimes they’re viewed as a threat because "digital gets the publicity while IT is working in the shadows. My effort is to work with the head of IT to explain this is not a turf war and there are certain functions that IT will always have." 

"We have to be closely aligned and understand we're in this together."
Matt Meyer

The digital team, Meyers said, should be viewed as a separate resource that has "the time and ability to work with business units."

So far, his observation has been that "IT feels underappreciated" because it has been in a digital role for a long time. "We’re trying to make sense of data, but they’ve been doing it."

When the CIO is the CDO

In some instances, the CDO and CIO role are blended. That’s the case at Cloudera, where Amy O'Connor serves as chief data and information officer. She reports to the CFO, and took on the role at the end of 2017 as company officials recognized that "we needed to organize data." Her team "put governance around it that enabled everyone in the company to get value out of it," she said.

For O'Connor that means not having to worry about balancing the traditional IT business with the person building a data asset. "I'm very fortunate, because those two sides of the house are in my own head," she said.

Previously, business units worked with data in functional silos, she said, and, while there are no turf wars, O'Connor does have to strike a balance between meeting their needs against IT's role.

"It’s only when you … cross-pollinate that you get true power, but you have to put governance around it to understand who owns data."
Amy O'Connor

It was incumbent upon O'Connor to encourage IT to think beyond the processes the department is trying to automate, more about data being consumed and derived and "the appropriate flow of that data."

It helped to put data first and change how data flows so that it is analyzed sooner and moves more cyclically, she said.

Now there is governance in place, and data is more streamlined. But O'Connor said it hasn't been a totally smooth process. "By its very nature, when you put governance in place, some of the ad hoc things slow down, and the pushback you’ll get is, 'Well, I want that right now.'" 

People in the business units were used to being able to get data they needed quickly, she said. "We had to educate them on how they would be more assured of their results—and get better results—from the data governance framework we"re putting in place."

CDOs and CIOs must share responsibilities

It's still early days for CDOs, and while they have the ear of senior management, they "still sit at the kids' table at the C-suite," according to one CDO quoted in a recent Bloomberg report. However, just as all business units rely on IT infrastructure to function internally and externally, "the same importance is expected to be attached to those in charge of managing data in the near future," the study said.

Companies whose data goals are mature are going to have CIOs who are more open to sharing those responsibilities, Forrester's Hopkins said.

Kloeckner's Meyer agrees that as his firm transitions to a "modern, data-centric culture" and the organization comes to understand the power of the data and to gain the ability to extract it and make smart decisions, "hopefully, it's a realistic thing that the nature of IT changes. I see the two departments moving closer and closer together."

Working harmoniously can happen with shared accountability—not just through a data governance framework, but through an understanding by the CDO and CIO that if data is a core asset, it is everyone's responsibility, said Hopkins.

"[The CDO] thinks about the end-to-end process of obtaining data, data governance, and transforming data into something useful. And it’s hard to do that without a good relationship with IT."
—Ben Lorica

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