Data: The Rise and Rise of the CDO

If there is still any doubt in your mind about the importance of data in our lives, just try booking a ticket to a festival this summer or getting on a plane to anywhere. A few days ago, we were disappointed, yet again, to discover that we could not say goodbye to the restrictions we have endured over the last eighteen months in the name of public safety. This decision was taken based upon the collection of billions of data points, that data was then algorithmically sliced and diced to the tune of some very intelligent (and by now quite stressed), data engineers, led by the epidemiologists who advise our government. Not that long ago, the idea that a simple collection of data and its subsequent analysis could have such a significant impact on all of us would have been inconceivable.

This is an example of the power of Data on a ‘macro’ (and very public) scale. In this instance the outcome affects huge swathes (if not all) of the population. Yet this happens more often than we might think.  Elections, both here in the UK and abroad, are best viewed as the collection of data to prescribe a binary outcome. This is in part why the idea of election fraud has gained so much traction in recent years. As processes come under increased scrutiny, there is an uneasy sense that the process can (allegedly) be subverted at will, by those with the best data team.

It is no wonder then that in the business world we have seen the rise of the Chief Data Officer. What affects the macro will also affect the micro (in this instance, the relatively small areas of impact that our businesses and organisations have). Broadly speaking, the modern CDO falls into one of two categories: The Engine Room or The Evangelist.

The Engine Room CDO focusses on building the apparatus and culture for the data we have today so that we can drive the best business outcomes from it. The Evangelist tends to have a wider gaze – they show us the art of the possible, revelling in the ambiguity of what we don’t know about data and what it could do for us if we had the courage to change and invest. Neither of these are ‘better’ per se – each one answers very different business requirements. Which one you need is usually defined by the current state of your business and how data is perceived, as well as your future technological and commercial plans.

Either way, the CDO is a critical element of many senior leadership teams, often bringing far more than technical expertise to the table. They must be commercially astute influencers capable of effecting fundamental cultural change in an organisation. They must be comfortable selling the benefits of their initiatives to a wide range of stakeholders from Board level to colleagues and including the existing technical community.

There are no technology projects – just as there are no data projects – there are only business projects that are enabled by data. Yet, without expertise in these fields, how can any business know what they are truly capable of? This is the question that increasingly is being asked of – and by – CEOs, particularly as we pivot to the new, post Covid ‘normal’ and one that will only become more pressing in the years to come. It is impossible for any leader to know all the answers – but by seeking out someone else with the knowledge and expertise you are halfway there. Here at Norman Broadbent, we work closely with our clients to identify and map the desired skills and attributed needed for their organisation and their future plans. Our experienced Technology & Data Practice is dedicated to the acquisition of technology and data leaders to implement and enable future plans.

Data strategy is never going to prove to be a ‘fad’ or ‘passing phase’. To discuss your data strategy, or for an initial confidential discussion on any topic, please contact Neil Pilkington at