Chief Data Officer – Getting Started

I’ve been thinking recently about the job of a Chief Data Officer and what it would mean to come into an organization to perform this role. Whether there has been a previous CDO or not, in my experience helping government agencies get a handle on the data they collect and use, the key first task is to understand the people and the systems the organization runs on. This knowledge is locked up in the heads of the people who use these systems, not (unfortunately) in the documentation, which is often out of date, incomplete, and woefully inaccurate for communicating the actual uses and needs.

So, what’s a newly hired CDO to do? Human-centered design offers some great possibilities. For starters, get the power users into a room along with the system architects (if they’re still around) and the system maintainers, as well as other key stakeholders. Being non-technical isn’t a barrier to entry. Diverse views, including those unfamiliar with technology, are key to the success of this exercise, although it’s usually helpful to have people involved who have some familiarity with the system and experience using it.

After setting some ground rules, intentionally mix everyone up so they are partnered with someone from outside their office and sphere of experience. Run an icebreaker to get them acquainted and talking. Then get them to map the systems for you. In this, the new CDO plays the role of the ignorant outsider who asks the simple questions that often the experienced users haven’t thought of. How does the system work at a high level? What larger process does it fit into? What are the inputs to the process and the outputs? What are the challenges in that process?

Then have them do a brainstorming exercise. What questions does the data collected in this system need to answer? What would they like it to answer? Frame the question in terms of “If I knew X, I could do Y”. This connects the system and the data it stores to the larger purpose behind the collection, storage, and analysis of the data, reinforcing the notion that data is only as useful as the decisions it enables. What decisions are currently enabled by the data? What decisions aren’t enabled by this data that could be or could be better enabled?

Have them work individually, then in their pairs, before facilitating a discussion among the group. An hour long discussion of these will fly by. Encourage the conversation around the ideas, but push them towards a rough prioritization, either verbally or have them rank their suggestions with colored dots. Keep these suggestions with their ranking for future conversations with decision makers.

The job of a CDO is evolving as organizations come to terms with what it means to have someone filling this role. As someone focused on the public sector, I’m particularly interested in the work to define the role in government, but hopefully this is useful guidance for those who find themselves in this or a similar role.


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