Why Organizations Should Invest in a Chief Data Officer

Having a C-Suite Data Leader Is Valuable, Whether You’re a Business or the U.S. Government

As more businesses have embraced the value of data-driven decision-making, we’ve seen an increase in C-suite data leadership titles like “Chief Data Officer” (CDO) or “Chief Data Scientist.” In some ways, the scope of these roles is narrower than the CTO or CIO, with a specific focus on data-related activities versus the business’s use of technology as a whole. On the other hand, the CDO role ties technology and business strategy together in a unique way, since this leader is responsible for how the company uses data to make all of its decisions. Additionally, the CDO’s work spans numerous lines of reporting, handling everything from the legal aspects of data management (like GDPR) to the domain-specific knowledge needed to contextualize algorithmic outcomes. This combination of a specific yet far-reaching purview is part of the reason why many businesses have chosen to break out a distinct CDO role rather than rolling the responsibilities up under existing technology or business leaders.

As businesses grow and become more complex, it increasingly makes sense to bring data management oversight under a dedicated leader like a CDO, who can define a company’s data strategy and ensure it’s executed correctly. The company’s specific needs and size will dictate the exact title—Chief Data Officer, Chief Data Scientist, Chief Data Analyst, etc.—but the high-level goals and responsibilities will remain the same. For very large or complex organizations, it may even make sense to have several executives in charge of the various elements of a data program report up to a CDO, such as having both a Chief Data Scientist and a Chief Data Compliance Officer.

For example, in 2015, the U.S. government established a U.S. Chief Data Scientist role in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, working as part of the larger OSTP CTO team. They tapped Dr. DJ Patil to fill the position, charged with helping to “responsibly maximize the nation’s return on its investment in data,” among other tasks. Specific areas he focused on included data on policing practices and precision medicine. While the U.S. Chief Data Scientist’s scope is, of course, broader than what an individual business would need, the types of projects they can undertake are similar.

The Role of a Chief Data Scientist

First and foremost, this includes using data-driven decision-making to create better outcomes. As part of this effort, the Chief Data Scientist must educate decision-makers on combining algorithmic results with human understanding to create data-augmented decisions. Sometimes, people assume that bringing data into the decision process will mean fully automated, “set and forget” rulemaking. However, an organization’s data science leader can pave the way to combine the best of human knowledge and intuition with algorithms to make the most vital choices.

A Chief Data Scientist’s role also involves ensuring their organization practices responsible data science and ML, including bringing in perspectives from academia, business leaders, and other public policymakers where needed. We often talk about how domain knowledge for the problem at hand—and not just expertise in statistics and modeling—is essential for data scientists to do their best work. Similarly, a Chief Data Scientist should build bridges with other domain experts in areas like social science, law, and ethics to ensure their organization is creating data science and ML policies that will set everyone up for responsible success.

Data scientists and ML engineers are frequently turning to open-source tools to get their jobs done. In our 2020 State of Data Science report, 49% of data scientists and 66% of developers cited either the “speed of innovation” or the “most useful tool for my needs” as what they valued most about open-source software. Open source can be an incredible asset for an organization when used thoughtfully, including security concerns and considerations of how to sustainably support the community. Given the significant role open-source software plays in data science workflows, a Chief Data Scientist should collaborate with other executives to ensure their organization is a good-faith participant and steward of the open-source data science community.

At a large organization (like the U.S. government or a major business), the Chief Data Scientist also plays a role in how the enterprise participates in open data exchanges. Whether that’s being intentional about public datasets used to train the organization’s algorithms (asking questions like “Where is this data from?” and “What biases might be baked into it?”), or finding ways to safely open up their data to others. A chief data executive can help chart a successful path within the open data movement.

Making a C-Suite Data Leader Work Best for Your Organization

Not every company may be ready for a dedicated Chief Data Scientist; some may need to roll these particular responsibilities into a broader CDO position, while others might need to set aside a percentage of a CIO or CTO’s time to devote to data issues. But every company should have at least one senior leader who is accountable for ensuring the organization gets strategic value from its data and stewards it ethically and legally. Data science and ML can unlock vast benefits for organizations, but only if these initiatives are handled responsibly and thoughtfully. This is why the trend toward an increasing number of C-level data roles will continue.

And if you have your data leadership in place but want to better understand the ways you can organize their supporting staff, be sure to review our whitepaper on how to structure data science teams for success.

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