Corporate Data Strategy and The Chief Data Officer

Are you managing your data as a corporate asset? Is data – customer, product, user/transaction – even acknowledged by senior management? Responsibility for data within an organization reflects its importance; so, who manages your data?

Few companies recognize the tangible value of the data their organizations produce and generate. Some data, such as product meta-data, are seen as problematic necessities that generally support the sale of the company’s products; but management of much of the other data (such as information generated as a customer passes through the operations of the business) is often ad-hoc and creates only operational headaches rather than usable business intelligence. Yet, a few data aware companies are starting to understand the value of the data generated by their companies and are creating specific business strategies to manage their internal data.

Establishing an environment in which a corporate data strategy can flourish is not an inconsequential task. It requires strong, active senior-level sponsorship, a financial commitment and adoption of change-management principles to rethink how business operations manage and control internal data.   Without CEO-level support, a uniform data-strategy program will never take off because inertia, internal politics and/or self-interest will conspire to undermine any effort. Which raises a question: “Why adopt a corporate data strategy program?”

In simple terms, more effectively managing proprietary data can help a company grow revenue, reduce expenses and improve operational activities (such as customer support.) In years past, company data may have been meaningless in so far that businesses did not or could not collect business information in an organized or coordinated manner. Corporate data warehouses, data stores and similar infrastructure improvements are now commonplace and, coupled with access to much more transaction information (from web traffic to consumer purchase data), these technological improvements have created environments where data benefits become tangible. In data-aware businesses, employees know where to look for the right data, are able to source and search it effectively and are often compensated for effectively managing it.

Recognizing the potential value in data represents a critical first-step in establishing a data strategy and an increasing number of companies are building on this to create a corporate data strategy function.

Businesses embarking on a data-asset program will only do so successfully if the CEO assigns responsibility and accountability to a Corporate Data Officer. This position is a new management role and not additive to an existing manager’s responsibilities (such as the head of marketing or information technology). In order to be successful, this position carries with it the responsibility for organizing, aggregating and managing the organization’s corporate data to better effect communications with supply chain partners, customers and internal data users.

Impediments to implementing a corporate data strategy might include internal politics, inertia and a lack of commitment, all of which must be overcome by unequivocal support from the CEO. Business fundamentals should drive the initiative so that its expected benefits are captured explicitly. Those metrics might include revenue goals, expense savings, return on investment and other, narrower measures. In addition, operating procedures that define data policies and responsibilities should be established early in the project so that corporate ‘behavior’ can be articulated without the chance for mis- and/or self-interpretation.

Formulating a three-year strategic plan in support of this initiative should be considered a basic requirement that will establish clear objectives and goals. In addition, managing expectations for what is likely to be a complex initiative will be vital. Planning and then delivering will enable the program to build on iterative successes. Included in this plan will be a cohesive communication program to ensure the organization is routinely made aware of objectives, timing and achievements.

In general terms, there are likely to be four significant elements to this plan: (1) the identification and description of the existing data sources within an organization; (2) the development of data models supporting both individual businesses and the corporate entity; (3) the sourcing of technology and tools needed to enact the program to best effect; and then, finally, (4) a progressive plan to consolidate data and responsibility into a single entity. Around this effort would also be the implementation of policies and procedures to govern how each stakeholder in the process interacts with others.

While this effort may appear to have more relevance for very large companies, all companies should be able to generate value from the data their businesses produce. At larger companies the problems will be more complex and challenging but, in smaller companies, the opportunities may be more immediate and the implementation challenges more manageable. Importantly, as more of our business relationships assume a data component, data becomes integral to the way business itself is conducted. Big or small, establishing a data strategy with CEO-level sponsorship should become an important element of corporate strategy.

The following are the next articles in the series:

  1.  Setting the Data Strategy Agenda
  2. Corporate Data Program: Where to Start?
  3. Strategically Managing Data for Long Term Benefit