First Generation v Second Generation CDO

Authors: Caroline Carruthers, Chief Data Officer Network Rail, and Peter Jackson, Head of Data The Pensions Regulator.

Being a Chief Data Officer in the current climate is a rather interesting place to be, it can feel a little like dancing on quicksand while you have to learn to juggle wriggling snakes. So in order to help people interested in this area, whether you are a new CDO, well established data hero or just wondering what all the fuss is about, we have worked on a set of articles to answer some of the questions we are asked at nearly every conference we go to. While we can't promise you a solution to all your data related problems handed to you on a plate, we can promise that once a week you can look forward to another concise, interesting and easy to read article to help you on your data and information related journey.

I find there are few things in life where ‘one size fits all’. It doesn’t matter if we are talking shoes or food, ones person’s view of fast food is another’s idea of gastronomic heaven, so why should we assume that one Chief Data Officer will solve all our problems?

The simple answer is that it won’t and while there are many different varieties (being the wonderful multifaceted humans we are) currently they can be loosely categorised into two groups, First and Second generation CDO’s.

In the same way that Steve Jobs and his team developed the very first apple computer viewing it as a set of components, the First generation CDO has to adopt a similar view within an organisation. A large complex beast that does what it needs to (hopefully) but not necessarily with finesse, with lots of disparate bits of data and information existing without thought of connectivity. Not so much a lovely governed data lake, more of a children’s playing field on a raining Saturday afternoon filled with sodden holes trying desperately to join up to form little streams.

The two generations of CDO are different, but obviously have a great deal in common. If we break this down simply, imagine a pendulum that swings between complete risk aversion on one side of the scale and total value add on the other end. It would be rare that you would sit completely at one end of the scale or the other. Every place on the scale has merit and is the best fit for your organisation. What you need to decide is where on this scale you fit. If you lean towards the risk aversion side you are probably First generation, and if you lean towards the value add side you are a Second generation. You should never forget about both ends of the spectrum but you will at least know where your focus has to be.

The role of the first generation CDO is daunting but satisfying, full of quick wins as siloed pocket of data are pulled together (often kicking and screaming at first) to form coherent pieces of information. The first generation is all about ‘getting the basics right’ demonstrating what can happen when you start to treat your data as an asset and understand its potential.

One of the hardest things to overcome as a first generation CDO is that all of a sudden the organisation has invested in a key asset (you) and they want something to happen. They want this something to happen NOW, preferably, but next week would be OK at a push. It doesn’t matter how long the company has been set up – it will have developed its own complex way of working and you need to understand what makes it tick before you do something irreversible. So setting expectations is a very wise first step. That said you can’t sit around for the next two years and expect the organisation to wait whilst you ponder your navel.

So like any new role, the First Generation CDO needs to take a breath to get the lay of the land, understand the big picture and get on with it!

So you actually need to focus on four key areas:

·       Governance

·       Information Architecture

·       Engagement

·       And…… the quick wins…..

…what are the blinding flashes of the obvious that other people just haven’t had the time to do, have left to someone else, or have been consigned to the ‘too hard box’.

The role of the Second generation CDO is no less daunting, but from a different perspective. Yes you have to kick the tyres and make sure the car runs, but you are now faced with making the vehicle sing. Your organisation has already been sold the vision of what it can be with great data governance and all the value that can be derived from the data – now you have to deliver it!

One of the hardest things to overcome as a Second generation CDO is that all of a sudden the organisation has invested in a key asset (you) and they want something to happen. Now preferably but next week would be ok at a push. Sound familiar?

If you are lucky and you had a rock star of a First generation CDO who sorted out the basics for you, excellent! You could rely on everything you are told and start doing your job OR you could just take a few moments to check that your foundations are as solid, well-built and sized right as you had hoped. Again the same advice holds - you need to understand what makes it tick before you do something irreversible.

Now the real fun can start – the possibilities for an organisation are endless when you have all your basics covered and a great vision on how to support the business.

If we liken the First and Second CDO’s to architects, the First generation creates the understanding that a house must be built, picks the site and crafts the idea of the overarching structure. The First generation CDO goes onto to build a firm foundation and ordering the blocks and components which will make up the house. In essence they create the possible. The Second generation turns the ‘possible’ into an art form, understanding the nuances of the family and making the house a home filled with wonder and intelligence. And like an architect, a CDO can be both. Taking the organisation through the complete journey and beyond, sometimes taking a step back to understand the process and modify where necessary but always moving forward.

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