She's coming... the Chief Data Officer

Keep your head, don't lose it

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The chief data officer is on the rise. The number of CDOs appointed by major organisations rose from 400 in 2014 to 1,000 in 2015, according to Gartner. By 2019, 90 per cent will have a CDO, the analyst says.

Their rapid emergence raises important questions about the role and position of the CDO in organisations. More pressingly it raises serious queries about the role of one particular executive already supposed to be lord of things technical: the CIO.

While some might struggle to define the exact role of their newly appointed CDO, others are even more bewildered by the need for a CIO. Chief executives busy appointing digital executives are just as likely to query their need for an IT director.

From the outside looking in, it looks like a very pertinent question. After all, the CIO should be established as the go-to person for all IT initiatives in the business. The appointment of CDOs suggests tech leaders have failed to grasp the nettle. One explanation comes from a closer look at the evolution of the CIO role.

CIO history

In comparison to its c-suite equivalents, the IT leadership position is very much a nascent position. While mature posts such as the CEO and CFO are the established executive bedrock of modern enterprises, the CIO role was only first defined in the early 1980s.

The past 35 years have been a story of slow maturity for the IT leader. Some CIOs have established an industry-wide reputation as change agents. Take Filippo Passerini, the recently retired CIO of Procter & Gamble, who rose through the ranks to lead a billion-dollar IT-led transformation of the consumer giant.

Passerini is far from alone. Many other IT chiefs continue to run successful technology organisations. However, internal competence is no guarantee of broader acceptance. The CIO still suffers from an image problem. Sales, finance and operations executives regularly assume the CEO position, but the promotion of CIOs to the upper echelons of blue-chip organisations is rare.

Former CIO Philip Clarke's promotion to the top job at Tesco's in 2011 was hailed as a breakthrough moment for IT directors. But Clarke was replaced as CEO in July 2014 following the retailer's poor performance. The failure of other CIOs to assume the top role suggests many executives believe IT professionals cannot be trusted to venture beyond bits and bytes and into pence and pounds.

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