Chief Data Officer: That’s, Like, a Real Thing?

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    Alibaba — the giant of e-commerce — recently named Chief Data Officer Jonathan Lu Xaoxi as the company’s new CEO.

    As far as I know, this is the first time a chief data officer has been promoted to the head of the company.

    I can sum up in a sentence what I know about Alibaba: If you want to buy a lot of something, you can probably find the manufacturer on Alibaba. It’s an amazingly fun site to browse, particularly if you love patches.

    Even though Alibaba specializes in things, not information, cataloging and managing the sale of all these products so obviously requires managing a lot of data, particularly unstructured data.

    But I still found the news surprising, mostly because I honestly had no idea chief data officer would be considered that important. Obviously, I knew it was an emerging trend and assumed there were probably a few organizations here and there adding CDOs. But I also assumed these companies were probably very data-specific, meaning data was their bread and butter.

    And then, CDO is a relatively new CXO position. It’s not even necessarily a position that would report to the CEO, much less wind up being one.

    It’s possible, of course, that Lu’s promotion has more to do with him than his work as CDO. TechCrunch points out that Lu is an insider who’s been with the company since it was one year old.

    What’s more, technically his title is EVP, and chief data officer is one of his two main roles: He’s also president of Aliyun Mobile OS, which is the company’s mobile platform. He has an impressive resume beyond that; he had even stepped as the CEO of what was then

    But, TechCrunch notes, the fact that he’s a “big data man” is significant.

    “Putting him at the top of the pyramid is a signal, perhaps, of how Alibaba will also be putting this idea — as applied both to its own company and potentially as a business unit to help enterprises, Alibaba’s core customer base — as a key part of its business,” the site writes.

    I lean towards thinking this is a sign of the times. Data matters. It matters how it’s regulated; it matters if it falls out of compliance; it matters if someone steals it; it matters that it’s clean (or isn’t); and it matters if you want to make better decisions, and smart companies now know it, as a recent Economist Intelligence Survey found.

    Gartner analyst Ted Friedman said he’s seen a shift in the past year and is now looking into the growth of CDOs. As an example, Friedman said there’s a three-day MIT symposium that he attends each summer, and while perusing the coming lineup, he noticed many of the presenters carried the title chief data officer.

    It’s a title that hits across industries, even. For instance, there’s a CDO at Bank of America, which you would expect, but there’s also a CDO with the Army now.

    “There’s clearly a trend there of CDO roles emerging and those roles having interesting responsibility on data quality,” Friedman said. “Right now we’re seeing about 50/50 split between that CDO role residing in IT, in which case it tends to report directly to the CIO. So you could think of it as a director-level, not really quite executive … And then the other 50 percent on the business side, where it does seem to be very much an executive type role.”

    CDOs are reporting to the chief operating officer, the chief information officer, the chief financial officer — and, yes, the chief executive officer.

    And now, it seems, it can lead straight to the top.

    If you’re interested in learning more about CDOs, Micheline Casey — who claims the title of the country’s first state CDO — is now a principal at CDO, LLC, a boutique consultancy specializing in information management. She runs a blog on information management, but she also will be presenting on the topic of CDOs at this year’s Enterprise Data World. That event is in San Diego, April 28-May 2.

    Loraine Lawson
    Loraine Lawson
    Loraine Lawson is a freelance writer specializing in technology and business issues, including integration, health care IT, cloud and Big Data.

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