Want to find the perfect Chief Data Officer? Look for an empathetic big brain to harness the power of big data for your business. Here’s why.

Being a Chief Data Officer (CDO) is not for the faint of heart. With the rise of big data, a sea of potential social information, and a new generation of analytics tools, there is growing interest in the role.

Big data and data science matter because they enable companies to operate and strategize more intelligently. It is all about adding substantial enterprise value by learning from data. Devoting executive muscle in the C-suite empowers companies to address changing markets and buyer behaviors.

What exactly do companies need, though, to ensure big data initiatives drive results? The best candidates for CDO may well be big-brained data scientists -- but they’ll also need plenty of courage and imagination, as well as the muscle to get things done.

Ask colleagues to describe a data scientist, and they’ll sketch a picture of a left-brained “PhD out of Stanford, Harvard or MIT.” Your CDO will certainly need those left-brain analytic skills and reasoning abilities typically associated with mathematics, statistics and programming. Your CDO will also want to leverage big data to solve problems throughout the business in creative ways. So add those right-brain strengths of intuition, innovation and problem-solving to the profile.

Put More EQ in your Big Data

You might conclude that a version of the brilliant big-brained character of Dr. Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory would make the ideal CDO. Not true. Sheldon is highly analytic and a brilliant problem solver, but notably suffers from a hilarious inability to recognize sarcasm and other emotions.

Bringing analytics and innovation together successfully to understand, empathize with, and delight customers requires the CDO have a large measure of Emotional intelligence (EQ). This ability to read feelings and respond in an appropriate way is said to reside deep in both sides of the brain in the hippocampus and amygdala, the center of emotions.

Lest you think I’ve gone too touchy-feely with all this EQ stuff, let me reassure: as a Mathematics major and recovering Six Sigma greenbelt, I know reason is important. But reason and emotions aren’t necessarily opposites. Rather, they are two types of intelligence -- and powerful results can come from their combination.

With high IQ and EQ, the ideal CDO will use information gathered from analyzing big data to “connect and succeed in a myriad of situations,” not the least of which focuses on perfecting the customer experience.

Connecting with Customers

The CDO needs to appreciate the importance of connecting the technology-based processes that operate our companies with the human element. Businesses have all invested in ERP and CRM solutions, the systems of record required to run companies successfully. Yet much of the really important information lies in unstructured data, often social.

The customer's real context, desires and issues are often in this layer, and the CDO can focus on that to make the customer connection a little brighter. To do this, the CDO will need a “whole-brain” approach that lowers the barrier between useful information and action.

Research shows that businesses that use big data to connect with customers make more money. That’s an important outcome for a CDO. Often cited industry examples include consumer product and retail loyalty programs like Tesco and financial services customer acquisition programs. But using data can result in smarter business decisions and more revenue for all sorts of companies.

Auto makers are building betters cars this way. Ford leverages an internal team to analyze social media and other external data in order to figure out, for example, what customers are saying about their vehicles compared with other makes. To do this, Ford looks for data scientists

who can see the world through the eyes of both technologists and businesspeople, two groups that often have different concerns and goals in mind.”

In one case, the product development team was curious as to whether the Ford Escape sport-utility vehicle should have a standard or a power rear-door liftgate. So the team took to social media, where people were actually talking about it quite a bit, and an analysis revealed most in favor of the power liftgate. It’s now a feature.

Saving Costs, Saving Lives

The ideal CDO recognizes that leveraging big data is just plain good business, but can also rise to a higher cause.

Using big data to reduce “nonadherence” of prescription drugs can significantly impact cost and potentially save lives. An estimated $500 billion in wasted health care spending each year comes from selling or obtaining prescription drugs illegally or patients not taking them according to directions.

Express Scripts manages 1.4 billion prescriptions a year for 100 million Americans and 65,000 pharmacies. Analysis on its large dataset spots outliers in patient behavior that signal abuse or fraud. Their models take into account some 400 variables including classic demographic information, types and numbers of prescriptions someone is getting, and even whether people respond to their letters and phone calls. By analyzing refill patterns, they can identify patients for corrective action who potentially aren’t taking their medicine as prescribed.

At times, extraordinary outcomes become possible. Through the magic of big data analytics and sophisticated algorithmic kidney-matching software, one kidney donor triggered a six-way kidney swap thanks to Sutter Health's California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC)'s strategic use of big data. According to CPMC,

The fact that this chain was started by an altruistic donor is significant in that six people who came to us with living donors with whom they are not compatible will now get living donor kidneys.”

Frankenstein CDO

CDO's required skills are clear: analytical thinking, creative problem solving and empathy. Increasingly, the outcomes prove a high return on investment is possible, but to deliver maximum value, the C-suite needs to develop clear CDO responsibilities and vision. As McKinsey writes in Mobilizing your C-suite for big-data analytics:

Because the new horizons available to companies typically span a wide range of functions, including marketing, risk, and operations, the C-suite can evolve in a variety of ways…Daunting as it may seem to rethink top-management roles and responsibilities, failing to do so, given the cross-cutting nature of many data-related opportunities, could well mean jeopardizing top- or bottom-line growth and opening the door to new competitors.”

It is apparent that “without extra executive horsepower, stoking the momentum of data analytics will be difficult for many organizations.” But does this really mean that we need to add a CDO position? Maybe yes, maybe no.

The best path might indeed be adding a chief data office to the C-suite. Or we could take the path to build a Frankenstein monster CDO function from the parts of the relevant CxOs by enhancing all the mandates of the chief marketing, information technology, strategy and risk officers.

More aptly perhaps, and given the right person, we could instill the CDO responsibilities into one of the critical C-suite positions like the Chief Marketing Officer.

Whatever the path taken, we will need those big brains, but only the ones who can recognize sarcasm.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Hernan Piñera