A Month in the Life of a Chief Data Officer

By   /  September 26, 2017  /  No Comments

chief data officerWhat does a Chief Data Officer’s (CDO) regular routine look like? DATAVERSITY® wanted to learn more about the activities that define a CDO’s typical working day, and Ursula Cottone, CDO and Head of Enterprise Data and Process Services for Citizens Bank, was kind enough to share where her role regularly leads her today, as she drives the end-to-end processes for the organization’s data assets.

Cottone has been with Citizens Bank for about two and a half years, but has some 20 years in the industry in various roles. She originally earned the Chief Data Officer title at KeyBank after holding various leading positions there, including being involved with its Lean Six Sigma group and its commercial banking, credit and investment organizations, and spearheading an enterprise-wide Oracle Siebel CRM implementation. She had also spent time managing dozens of retail branches and working with middle-market credit teams, and serving as Chief Administrative Officer for KeyBank Capital Markets.

Clearly, all these experiences gave her a far-reaching perspective on the bank’s operations, and one challenge she realized was common to all of them was the need for an integrated, consistent view of data. With the hiring of a new CIO at KeyBank, who wanted to build out the bank’s data functions and set out to roadmap that, she was tapped to lead the effort as CDO.

Cottone previously has noted that the experience there helped her understand how important a role the Chief Data Officer has in ensuring the high quality of data that the business will depend on to drive outcomes, to make sure that the data is in the right shape, and “to be used in innovative ways,” in support of driving revenue.  “Business outcomes are in the center and the reason to have this role,” she has also stated.

The Right Space for the Chief Data Officer

After proving her success in the CDO seat at KeyBank, she had the opportunity to stretch her professional talents further at Citizens Bank. Among the critical day-to-day efforts she leads as CDO, she says, is serving as the bridge between the business and technology groups.

While a CDO needs strong technology partners, her take is that it’s the wrong move to place the CDO function directly within the technology office itself. It should, rather, emanate from where the business’ own data priorities come from – whether that’s finance or marketing or risk management, for instance. As CDO, “you take on the persona of the place where your position is centered. Technology is the wrong place because it loses that business connectivity, and in my mind the CDO is a business role,” she says, given data’s connection directly to both people and processes.

At Citizens Bank, the CDO role resides with Business Services, which oversees the technology, operations, information and corporate security, property services, vendor management and change management functions. It’s an appropriate fit, she believes, because it doesn’t limit the CDO function to dealing with the mechanics of moving the data (which would be the priority of a strictly tech-oriented CDO role), nor does it demand the focus be primarily on using the data without enough attention to regularly managing and maintaining it, which could be the outcome if it lived only under business unit control.

“We have the CIO for technology and the CISO for protecting data. My role is about helping people use the data to accomplish business goals,” she says, while also assuring its quality and stewardship so that it remains continuously useful for the business.

“It relies heavily on me to understand the business’ challenges, goals, and strategies and make sure we are enabling an environment that can provide the business the ability not just to do more stream-lined reporting but to move into prescriptive and predictive analytics,” she says.

The CDO Serves as the Data Champion

It’s best to think of the CDO role as the champion and voice of data in an organization, Cottone says. Or to put it another way, the Chief Data Officer serves as the ongoing rudder to the ship of data. When Cottone joined Citizens Bank the organization set out a data strategy and roadmap, “and to keep people on course for that roadmap and follow that strategy is an everyday activity,” she says.

As you might imagine, that means that communications is a big part of the job. Constantly meeting with executives and teams to help convey what her office does and the need to stay on the right data path is critical. It’s very easy for people to become enamored with new types of data or new data tools, she notes. For example, people can get caught up in what they could do with unstructured data, but the reality in the banking industry is that there is so much opportunity still to be harnessed around structured data, like loans and deposit information, “and what we can do using that in moving from Prescriptive to Predictive Analytics,” she says. It’s her job to say the bank has the tools and the data it needs for right now and that it can evaluate others if it needs to later.

“I have to reinforce that we still have our roadmap to complete, and that we can’t change course right now unless there’s a compelling reason to do so,” she says. “I want to keep us focused to tap that potential vs. just shifting to new things.” That way, Citizens Bank will get value from the money it has already spent on building out its data environment as planned.

It may take awhile for this message to resonate in an organization with some 20,000 people, she acknowledges, but ultimately when a business group has a project whose success depends on ongoing data quality, it does. “They get engaged at such a different level and the dialogue changes a lot,” she says. “It’s not really until work connects with [the data strategy] that you actually touch someone – it’s that ‘what’s in it for me’ moment.”

Next Steps for Data Success

Change Management can take root then. It also helps to build trust when the CDO can demonstrate execution to the business – that he or she understands and appreciates their pain and will be able to help them leverage data to alleviate it. That way, Cottone says, “when I come along for the next thing they know I’m serious about what I’m talking about and that I will help them through it,” she says. Over time any resistance becomes less.

And as more business units buy into the CDO’s efforts to help their business initiatives, word gets around and other business units want a piece of the pie, too.  “If there is a line forming, that is the best blessing I could ever ask for,” she says.

In addition to spending a great deal of time in communicating the roadmap, keeping everyone focused on it, and building trust, the Chief Data Officer and her team also helps with continuing to formulate the long term data strategy. “What do the next three to five years look like for us, and what will we be ready to do?” Cottone posits.

Analytics, for example, already is a prominent theme but its importance only will grow as it relates to data usage, she says. Citizens Bank currently has a Chief Analytics Officer, who is focused mostly on the consumer side of banking right now, and whose role likely will expand to work with her office to create a community of practice in the organization around leveraging analytics beyond that space to drive more deeply into more facets of the organization.

She foresees a “linked arms” relationship with CDOs “to ensure that everyone has the data they need to do the analytics they need to do.”

About the author

Jennifer Zaino is a New York-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology journalism. She has been an executive editor at leading technology publications, including InformationWeek, where she spearheaded an award-winning news section, and Network Computing, where she helped develop online content strategies including review exclusives and analyst reports. Her freelance credentials include being a regular contributor of original content to The Semantic Web Blog; acting as a contributing writer to RFID Journal; and serving as executive editor at the Smart Architect Smart Enterprise Exchange group. Her work also has appeared in publications and on web sites including EdTech (K-12 and Higher Ed), Ingram Micro Channel Advisor, The CMO Site, and Federal Computer Week.

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