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Reporting lines for the CDO role: Context counts

The chief data officer (CDO) role may be gaining influence, but a lingering question that both public and the private sector organizations have yet to answer is: Who should CDOs report to? According to experts, it really depends.

Government CDOs who have few or no staff may benefit from the collegiality of an IT department and a CIO supervisor, according to Jane Wiseman, Innovations in American Government Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, which is part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. It also doesn’t hurt that the CIO’s budget is often bigger than a standalone CDO budget, which potentially means extra resources for data projects.

“If you’re part of a CIO shop, you work with people who are more niche technical people,” said Wiseman, who recently published Leading CDOs: A Framework for Better Civic Analytics. “And you’re part of a bigger team that might have expertise [necessary] to help problem solve.”

When a CDO reports to the head honcho — be it a mayor or a CEO — that sends a clear message that “the whole business is run on analytics,” Wiseman said, which has obvious plusses for the person in the CDO role. But that can also mean that the CDO works at the whim of the CEO’s every request.

“Frankly, when a CEO in government …  wants something, they typically don’t want it next week, they want it tomorrow or yesterday,” she said. “And some of these analytics things take a while to get an answer,” she said.

CDOs who don’t answer directly to the organization’s top boss typically have more space “to take on projects requiring more time to demonstrate results, including more methodologically complex analytics projects,” according to the Wiseman’s report.

Research consultancy Gartner, on the other hand, advocates that the CDO role or those who head up data and analytics should live on the business side of the house, and the numbers it gathered suggest businesses and governments are doing just that. In Survey Analysis: Second Gartner CDO Survey – The State of the Office of the CDO, only 16% of the 180 respondents, a mix of CDOs, chief analytics officers and high-level data and analytics leaders, said they report to the CIO. The number was almost double — 30% — for those data roles reporting to CEOs. Four percent of those surveyed came from the public sector.

Jamie Popkin, lead author of report, said he expects to see numbers continue to tilt in the favor of a CDO-CEO reporting structure. “The point we’re making is that this is a new business function equal to IT and HR, finance, supply chain, any of the operations departments,” he said to SearchCIO in November.

Still, both Popkin and Harvard’s Wiseman agreed there are no hard and fast rules here. Popkin said that, for example, at a mining company he worked with, it made sense for the CDO role to be rooted in the IT organization because the business had no interest in being a data steward.

Wiseman also said the CDO reporting line also ultimately depends on the company situation. “I don’t think there’s any one right way to do it. It’s just that there are tradeoffs,” she said.

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