When COVID-19 began to spread rapidly on a global scale in March and April, at least one organization’s chief data officer (CDO) became a focal point.

“I never got such an influx of questions," Hernan Asorey, executive vice president and chief data officer at Salesforce, told CIO Dive last month. “What changed fundamentally is the need to shift to what was most important.”

The priority list more than six months later for chief data officers still includes COVID-19 adjustments and considerations, according to Jill Canetta, chief data officer at Experian Marketing Services.

But she — and at least one other CDO — are not sidelining innovation despite the pandemic. They’re grappling with artificial intelligence (AI) and enriching products and critical organizational processes with data.

Collaboration Across Data Groups

Canetta leads data strategy, data governance and data-informed innovation at her organization, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company that offers data and cross-channel media partnerships and marketing campaign measurement. Creating a strong data culture that enables continuous improvement in client and employee data literacy is a big focus for her teams, which include data acquisition, data management, data analytics and data governance.

“This is all by design, as collaboration is critical,” Canetta said. “We wanted to break down the silos and ensure team members are aware of the projects and initiatives others are working on. This approach ensures constant awareness of our data assets, how we vet our sources, how we are protecting/distributing the data, and how we transform the data into insight. This is in addition to proactively navigating the ever-changing regulatory environment in order to protect the integrity and quality of our data.”

Related Article: Chief Data Officer: Blossoming Executive or 'Unsettled Role'?

Priorities Are a Priority

When asked about her priorities for the last quarter of the year, Canetta said priorities themselves are top of mind. What to prioritize? What’s mission critical now, and what can be viewed as a 2021 task? Sifting through the most impactful data initiatives and what to move toward the top of the list is a never-ending process.

“Data-driven approaches have quickly become mission critical for businesses, so one of my biggest challenges has been prioritizing the volume of projects that come our way,” Canetta said.

Canetta's Data Office is no longer viewed as simply a source of data governance and stewardship, she said. The result is her team is as a creator of thought leadership and insight-driven innovation. "We understand that data can educate us and inform business decisions, not to mention, the value it can have in making our lives easier," Canetta said. "With that in mind, we have to constantly remain hyper-focused on our key priorities to be most effective.”

Instilling Data Culture, Data-Driven Decisions

Aaron Kalb, chief data officer at data catalog and governance provider Alation of Redwood City, Calif., said his department is primarily focused on three vital objectives:

  • Powering products with data. His team’s data scientists prototype and validate new features for machine learning engineers to build into the Alation data catalog.
  • Ensuring strategic plans and critical operational processes are data-driven. Between strategic planning sessions, Kalb’s team iterates on key open questions so management gets a clearer picture of customers, the market and trends, and in each meeting converges on informed decisions about the optimal approach.
  • Instilling a data culture across the organization. Kalb wants his company to empower every employee to be data-driven through access, education and curation.

To that third point, data analysts teach technical courses on writing SQL and visualizing data in Tableau. Kalb teaches one about data literacy, including pitfalls to avoid in data interpretation, and on how to be a “data translator” and data storyteller.

A data catalog council runs programs to ensure that metrics are documented in a business glossary, and that datasets and dashboards are annotated and validated so that employees can find answers easily and understand and trust what they find. Kalb’s teams also train individuals on data privacy rules and ethics and appropriate data use, then gives them wide access to potentially relevant data.

Kalb said he also spends time recruiting new team members and motivating and coaching current employees, documenting job roles and career paths, such as the path from data analyst to data scientist. 

Learning Opportunities

"I also guide and advise many of our data projects and interface with my peers on the executive team, to better understand their needs and priorities, and how data might help," Kalb said. "An important part of my role is to evangelize the power and impact of data, whether by presenting at company meetings or events, or just nudging a team along in general.”

Related Article: The Role of Augmented Data Management in the Workplace

Attention Shifts to COVID-19

Canetta said she believes her teams ultimately have an obligation to help consumers manage the pandemic and connect them with resources, products and services. To do so, clients needed to better understand how consumers are reacting.

“There have been changes in consumer spending and priorities,” she said. “Every person is at a different point in the COVID-19 lifecycle and businesses need to be relevant and find ways to address consumers’ most pressing needs.”

Experian Marketing Services’ analytics team was able to quickly create new 2020 behavioral audiences and define at-risk audiences to assist clients in reaching, supporting and communicating with customers and prospects.

“We are building upon that work and creating new insights that can serve as a roadmap for our clients to navigate the next phases of the pandemic,” Canetta said, “and that includes managing the holiday season and identifying insights related to specific vertical markets and those that align with the shifts in geographic impact from the virus."

Data and technology will continue to evolve and Canetta wants her organization to stay one step ahead. One priority is advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, and integrating them into analytics practice to build more advanced predictive use cases. The company also wants to create efficiencies within its analytics lifecycle and in its data governance practices.   

Getting People to Be More Curious, Rational

In Kalb's organization, everyone cares about data but not everyone necessarily sees themselves as a “data person.” He'd like to foster a broader, deeper data culture where more employees use data to make decisions in the next year.

"We will offer more trainings and courses on how to use data and continue to enrich the catalog so (employees) can find and understand data on their own, thus creating a culture where more employees consider themselves ‘data people,’ and those that don’t nonetheless use data on a weekly or even daily basis to get their work done," Kalb said.

"Our company-level results are the aggregation of a million little decisions made by hundreds of individuals every day, so we want the bulk of those decisions to be data informed. Moreover, democratizing data changes how people think and act in the long term to be more curious and rational.”