Although the chief data officer role is a relatively new addition to the C-suite, it’s now been in place long enough in many enterprises to make some general observations about people who are successful in the role and those who struggle to have an impact. Having observed CDOs and CDO-like roles in action across the public and private sectors and in multiple industries, and the corresponding results in their organizations, I’ve identified four types to characterize the differences in how CDOs operate and the impact these differences have on effectiveness.

The Two Axes

There are two major defining characteristics that differentiate CDOs from each other, and these form the axes of the matrix to identify the four types.

Innovative use of data

The first defining characteristic (on the X-axis of the matrix) is innovative use of data. It’s no secret that there’s been an explosion in the variety of data available to an enterprise from both internal and external sources. Web logs, sensor data (and various other “things”), social media, video, and audio, along with continuously growing traditional data, all provide opportunities for value but also bewilderment. It’s the CDOs job to be aware of all these sources of data and to educate others in the organization on the potential value. And if the CDO also happens to be responsible for analytics (that is, the CDO is also playing the role of chief analytics officer) then he or she has the added responsibility of understanding and communicating the value of various analytic techniques – from basic reporting to advanced machine learning and visualization. However – and this is where the second axis becomes important – it is not the CDOs job to decide the value of data and analytics for the organization. That is the role of other executives (and each executive’s one corresponding business liaison from IT) whom the CDO advises and supports as they propose value-producing initiatives and projects through the organization’s standard vetting and funding processes.

Alignment to funded business initiatives

The second defining characteristic (on the Y-axis of the matrix) is alignment to funded business initiatives. This is by far the most important differentiator between successful and unsuccessful CDOs and, unfortunately, it’s also the most miscommunicated and misunderstood. If you search for articles on advice for CDOs, you’ll see they commonly suggest that the CDO establish enterprise data resources along with associated data management capabilities, thus ensuring that the data is available, of good quality, and well protected. Within these same articles you’ll also inevitably read something like “make sure your data initiatives add business value!” But that is just not specific enough. As CDO, if your focus is on the value of your own initiatives, who is delivering the data for all those business initiatives sponsored by others? So, the characteristic along the Y-axis is not about aligning the CDO’s work to the enterprise’s mission, strategies, goals, principles, or even business value. Well, it’s about aligning to those things, but in a very specific way – by supporting the funded business initiatives that fulfill them. The degree to which a CDO can claim that his or her work is directly needed for the success of funded business initiatives – sponsored by other CxOs – is the degree to which that CDO will be successful. It’s as simple as that.

The Four Types of CDOs

The four types of CDOs are the Tail Chaser, the Resume Builder, the Collaborator, and the Pioneer. I’ll briefly describe each.

Art by Nora Lewis

The Tail Chaser CDO

The good thing about the Tail Chaser CDO is that he or she is usually open to advice. Putting aside for the moment the tongue-in-cheek name I gave this type, there’s nothing wrong with being a little confused about how to get started, or with making several attempts that just don’t work out. There really aren’t many models to follow, and, as I said previously, advice can be deceptively close to what’s needed and still get you nowhere.

The Resume Builder CDO

The Resume Builder CDO is the most challenging of the bunch. This CDO is a master at creating the illusion of progress – with very little real progress – even if it’s not always conscious or intentional. The Resume Builder creates a lot of presentations about data, data governance, regulatory compliance, artificial intelligence, and produces charters, policies, roles, responsibilities, request processes, and so on – all very important, no doubt. But all the most important business initiatives of the company are left to deal with their own data needs and issues while the CDO tries to gain traction with “data initiatives”, whatever that means. Just as it starts to become clear that only negligible actual value is being produced, this CDO simply updates his or her resume with all the right buzzwords, claims success, and moves on.

The Collaborator CDO

Considering the average level of maturity in the CDO role today, I have no complaints about the Collaborator type. This CDO is solid and effective and has my respect. The top priority of this CDO is not to make a big, visible splash, but to support others – very directly. The Collaborator CDO identifies the funded initiatives of the company – without necessarily proposing any new ones or significantly transforming those that are already approved – and simply offers to enable them with the data they need to be successful. In doing this, the Collaborator CDO can easily see the commonalities in data needs across the company and therefore is able to deploy data rationally (integrated, limited duplication and overlap, etc.). This CDO does not deploy data as a “foundation” in the hopes that the data will be used someday, but deploys data just-in-time and just-enough to support the applications sponsored primarily by others. And the Collaborator also does not wait for others to request data. Instead, this CDO proactively determines the data (and associated quality) needed based on the enterprise and departmental initiatives that are already on the books.

The Pioneer CDO

The Pioneer CDO is the most mature type and is what all CDOs should aim toward. Most Collaborator CDOs will inevitably become Pioneer CDOs as they look for new ways to support their partners. Tail Chaser CDOs have a chance of getting to Pioneer level if they focus on moving up along the Y-axis first. Resume Builder CDOs are unlikely ever to become Pioneer CDOs because they are doing too well at perception management and mobility to worry about it. At the Pioneer level of maturity, the CDO is aware of the most advanced ways to use data while keeping in mind that basic capabilities are still crucial. The Pioneer CDO uses this knowledge to inspire other CxOs (and, again, their single corresponding IT liaisons) to propose or transform initiatives that provide value in their area of responsibility. The data and capabilities this CDO delivers are not implemented for their own sake, but instead to directly serve the most important needs of the enterprise – that is, the value associated with funded business initiatives sponsored by others.


As CDOs become a standard role in large enterprises, serious challenges in the role are beginning to surface. Yet the role is vital, and with the rapid proliferation of data and the variety of methods to leverage that data for business value, the need for what the CDO can offer will only increase. Identifying the factors that make this role successful and applying them as early as possible will save CDOs, and the organizations they serve, a lot of time and frustration.

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