Step-by-Step: Lead a culture shift

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Often tasked with steering the design and integration of large-scale digitization efforts, the chief data officer’s potential to add strategic value makes them a leading change agent. That’s one of the reasons CDOs
have seen their stature and influence rise, according to a report by The Innovation Enterprise.1 As data increasingly becomes a business asset, more organizations are adding CDOs to their executive suite. By 2017, Gartner predicts2 50 percent of organizations will have a CDO in place.

Leading organizational change, however, is notoriously fraught with complexity. Efforts can too easily go off the rails if not shepherded carefully. These five steps ensure CDOs, specifically, have the necessary foundation to lead and sustain their data strategies—which often means guiding some form of corporate culture change.

Step 1: Ensure your team has the right blend of skills

CDOs need to have firm grasp of the specific skillsets needed to carry out their near-term priorities and anticipate how those talent needs are likely to shift over the next five years as the business strategy and market conditions evolve. A skills inventory can be a powerful way to assess existing capabilities and compare resources with other functions, such as marketing and IT. Back in 2012, for instance, Procter & Gamble created a baseline digital-skills inventory tailored to every level of advancement in the organization, according to an interview with then CEO, Bob McDonald that ran on Harvard Business Review online.3 That can reveal strengths and gaps, especially in critical programming languages, agile software development, algorithmic modeling and other specialties. CDOs can then use those inventories to determine where they can partner with other disciplines internally and where they need to bring resources in from outside.

Step 2: Develop a talent attraction and retention program

With young, digital talent in the form of programmers and data analysts in high demand, CDOs must establish a comprehensive talent attraction and retention program. It should be one with a compelling narrative, clear role descriptions, rewarding development paths and meaningful opportunities for growth. CDOs would be wise to borrow from creative industries and tech startups that woo developers and data analysts with cultures they admire. According to Tim Leberecht, CMO of the architecture and innovation firm, NBBJ (which has advised Amazon, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, Samsung, Tencent and others) and author of the book The Business Romantic, “Younger hires are much more interested in work they find meaningful. Survey after survey shows they want an authentic environment.

Such factors often outweigh compensation. Organizations that turn a blind eye to those realities will have a harder time holding onto star talent.”4

Organizations based outside traditional tech hubs can feel the skills gap most acutely. But, IBM’s Eric Denkhoff advises CDOs to be creative. “There a number of opportunities to create strategic talent feeder systems,” he says. “Consider co-creating programs with local universities; design interesting internship programs, and look into management rotations.” CDOs can create that hook by providing team members with the opportunity to have a significant role in turning a lagging “analog” organization into a digital powerhouse.

Step 3: Map organizational dependencies

After the CDO has a team in place, the next step is to think through the organizational chart, but in a way that goes deeper than boxes and lines. Instead, focus on defining the interdependencies between CDO team and other constituencies in the organization. Then clarify how team members will interface with other roles. “What you want to do,” advises Sankar Bala, Senior Vice President and CDO of Flagstar Bank, is “demonstrate the power of synergy across departments.”5

Often governance can serve as an effective organization principle. Philippe De Smedt, the Chief Data Architect at Visa advises that CDOs, pinpoint key subject areas that require data governance, then identify data stewards for each of those areas from relevant areas of the business who have ultimate ownership over the data and data architects in IT who understand how and where data is stored for a particular subject area.6

Aside from paving the way for smoother collaboration, ironing out the governance structure from a roles and responsibility standpoint makes it much easier for CDOs to roll out their data initiatives, knowing they have an established a network across the business that is able to partner with them on an agreed-upon change management framework.

Step 4: Shape expectations and use adoption metrics to inculcate desired behavior

Big data and analytics is inherently a culture change process. That requires new mindsets. For CDOs that often means shaping points of view and encouraging senior leaders to understand why data must be managed on an enterprise level, even in sensitive areas like risk and compliance where data is commonly siloed. “Focus on quick wins and operational fixes or data problems that have been driving folks crazy,” advises Jennifer Ippoliti, the CDO at Raymond James. “Anything that will promise relief to an influential stakeholder or group will help.”

Adoption metrics are essential to buy-in because they give both the immediate team as well as business leaders clear evidence of the behavior change. “You want to be able to show evidence of tangible business value within 90-days,” Vijay Venkatesan, vice president of enterprise data management at Sutter Health, said at the recent CDO Strategy Summit in San Francisco. “So focus on metrics that are business impacting.” For instance, after rolling out a new system, a CDO might monitor employee logins. If they see 100K employees using the new processes, the CDO team will know people are embracing the new approach. If they only see 100 logins, that shows much more communication is still needed. Quick, tangible adoption metrics such as these allow the CDO team to intervene early, listen to concerns, make needed improvements and demonstrate evidence of the desired behavior change.

Step 5: Run a change impact analysis

Change impact analyses chart how new processes can affect different groups. An updated data management platform, for instance, may have implications on a company’s billing system or require marketing to change their customer reporting templates. Such analyses often take the form of heat maps that describe affected systems and process interdependencies. “Armed with this knowledge,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, director of MIT’s Center for Digital Business, “A change agent can use intuitive principles to seek points of leverage and design a smoother transition.”

Those insights allow CDOs to reach out to relevant stakeholders, articulate the impact of planned changes and describe how managers can best prepare. IBM’s Denkhoff stresses such notice is extremely important in keeping implementations on track and ensuring buy-in from the rest of the organization. He adds, “Showing that you understand to a very granular degree how your data strategy will shape the rest of the business really cements the CDO’s credibility as a senior strategist and change agent.”


1 Borne, Kirk; Hill, George; and Towers, Chris. The Rise of the Chief Data Officer. The Innovation Enterprise, 2013.

2 McCall, Tom. “Understanding the chief data officer role,” Smarter with Gartner blog, February 18, 2015.

3 Harris, Jeanne. “Data is useless without the skills to analyze it.” Harvard Business Review Online, September 13, 2012.

4 THINK Leaders, “Pacesetter: Tim Leberecht”

5 Balar, Sankar, presentation, IBM CDO Strategy Summit, San Francisco, April 16, 2015.

6 De Smedt, Philippe, presenta- tion, IBM CDO Strategy Summit, San Francisco, April 16, 2015.

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