At the core of the Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO)'s mission is an unrelenting commitment to helping entrepreneurs learn and grow to new levels of leadership. Identifying strategies to maximize growth potential is critical, especially when challenging the status quo. As data use continues to influence businesses in larger and more significant ways, we hear calls for a new role to oversee this data-driven journey. Amy O'Connor, chief data and information officer at Cloudera, and her daughter, Danielle Dean, principal data scientist at Microsoft, are trailblazers in the big data management movement. We asked the mother-daughter duo why now is the right time for companies to hire a Chief Data Officer. Amy shared the pair's perspective:

No matter where we work, we all want the same things when it comes to big data: To become more data-driven in order to understand our customers better, to build innovative and connected products and services, and to protect our businesses against risk. Ultimately, we all aim for digital transformations that will make the world in which we live a safer, healthier and more efficient place.

Companies have started collecting and utilizing large amounts of data in new and different ways--using new data management platforms that support machine learning and analytics both on-premise and in the cloud. As a result, we've seen the critical need for a visionary practitioner to lead that data-driven journey. This person should take on the advocacy for, and governance of, appropriate and innovative use of data. While the traditional Chief Information Officer role is about the technology, and while that technology is creating, collecting and using data, the CIO does not own the data and cannot make decisions about the data.

So, who will find ways to drive innovation with big data in your company? Who can your organization trust to be responsible for information protection and privacy, information governance, data quality and data lifecycle management? A Chief Data Officer, of course. A CDO is just the type of navigator you'll need to guide your organization toward data democratization, with the ultimate goal of becoming data-driven.

Your journey to becoming a data-driven business

Before I explain why you need a CDO, remember: This is a journey. It's not something that will happen overnight; it's a multi-year or even multi-decade journey. One of the simplest ways to explain it is with our mantra: Think big, start smart, iterate often. Let's unpack that:

  • Think big. First, identify your business' strategic initiatives--the areas in which your business most needs to transform. More often than not, these are identified in any public company's annual report. And across all businesses, across all industries and around the globe these strategic initiatives include understanding customers better, building connected products and services, and protecting your business through regulatory and privacy compliance as well as cybersecurity initiatives.
  • Start smart. An early win or two builds confidence, so aim to deliver maximum value very early in your data-driven journey. Focusing your first machine learning projects on data that only your business has often yields valuable insights that your company could not previously access.
  • Iterate often. Adopt an agile cadence where you are continually adding more data, varying analytical methods and delivering your insights into more applications. With that comes a governance and security plan, and proper training to know how best to use data to drive business results.

Paving the way: What data can do for your business

As a chief data and information officer, I not only lead an internal data strategy but also work with customers all over the world, discussing how businesses can effectively manage people, processes and mindsets to work with data in different ways.

In a similar vein, Danielle works with people who use analytics products to build solutions for real-world problems, from predictive maintenance models to models in healthcare, finance, retail, recommendation systems and more. Although our roles are different, we both recognize the importance of fostering an environment that puts data at the center of everything we do.

One of my favorite examples of how data can transform a business is Komatsu, the Tokyo-based equipment, technology and services solutions business for the mining industry. The mining market faces increasing social and environmental regulatory issues as well as increasingly difficult mining conditions in getting to deeper ore deposits. Komatsu leverages data from its mining equipment to continuously optimize support and enhance its products. That's just skimming the surface (no pun intended): Data can do so much more for businesses today, especially when you have a CDO paving the way.

Why the time is now to hire a Chief Data Officer

In the end, only the most adaptable organizations will survive. From Danielle's experience working with some of the world's leading innovators, she sees that these innovators need leadership that values data and takes appropriate care of it. Under a data-driven leader such as a CDO, the innovators can genuinely innovate.

That's why the time is now to hire a CDO.

And if your organization is like mine, you might even consider combining the roles of both the CIO and CDO. On the one hand you have the CIO managing the systems that create, house and use data, and on the other hand, you have the CDO as the primary advocate for innovative and appropriate data use. It seemed clear in our company that it was a strategic move to combine these roles to eliminate the tension that often exists between the two charters and foster a more innovative environment.

As we said, the role of data in your organization is a journey, but it has to begin now and with the right steps. Management can start by driving the necessary shift in culture and bringing in a C-level leader responsible for data strategy. The CDO is not only a person who can represent data as a strategic business asset: CDOs are also savvy, straddle business and IT, and will help navigate the bumpy--and exciting--journey to becoming a data-driven organization.