Chief data officer may go the way of chief electricity officer

A trio of new roles arise for data management -- chief data officer, chief digital officer and chief analytics officer

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Commerce Department plans to hire a chief data officer (CDO), whose job will be to make more of the department's data publicly available.

Whoever takes the job will be part of an exclusive club.

The number of people worldwide who hold the title of chief data officer is relatively small, and will likely be no more than 250 people by the end of the year, according to David Mathison, the founder and CEO of the Chief Digital Officer Club, a network for professionals.

But Mathison also makes a point that's easy to miss. There are three roles that involve data management: the chief data officer, who focuses on the back end, the chief digital officer, who is concerned with the front end, and the chief analytics officer, who is concerned with making intelligent use of the data.

What these roles have in common is that they are new, having been created in the past decade. Whether those roles will be around in the decade afterward remains a question.

"Nobody wants another chief sitting around the table," said Peter Aiken, a professor of information systems at Virginia Commonwealth University, and founding director of data consulting firm Data Blueprint, which is jointly funded by the university.

Aiken, who has written a book, The Case for the Chief Data Officer (Morgan Kaufmann, 2013), sees the CDO as a transitional position, with specific goals in mind. One of them is to help IT change its views about data.

"IT has tended to look at data as storage," Aiken said. "People need to see it as an asset."

The Commerce Department's decision is noteworthy because it may have more data than any other federal department. Agencies under its umbrella include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Bureau of Economic Analysis, Census Bureau, Patent and Trademark Office, and other agencies that collect, study and analyze data.

Jim Hock, the Commerce Department spokesman, said the department is only able to make small amounts of its data publicly available. As a percentage, what's available may be in the single digits, he said.

"The mission is to unlock more of our data for the public good," Hock said.

Once that job is finished, and data management is ingrained in the organization, the need for a specific chief data officer may disappear, Aiken said.

The CDO position may be similar to another position that has since disappeared, Aiken said.

At the turn of the last century, the CEO was known as the chief electricity officer, and was charged with helping businesses move to electric power.

"We needed them for about 20 years while we figured out what this electricity stuff was about," Aiken said.

In government, CDOs are senior positions, but many serve under the CIO. The Department of Transportation last month hired its first chief data officer, with an annual salary ranging from $124,995 to $157,100.

The chief digital officer is the fastest-growing position in this data area, but Mathison looks at the Commerce Department's decision as great news for drawing attention to data management.

Mathison said the chief digital officer role may be the most transitional. He has already seen some executives who were chief digital officers in early adopting firms, such as advertising and media companies, move to CEO and director roles. The chief data officer role, because of its back-end focus, will remain longer, but he didn't rule out Aiken's view that it may ultimately be transitional.

Read more about it careers in Computerworld's IT Careers Topic Center.

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