“Who led the data and digital transformation in your business? The CEO? The CTO? Or COVID-19?” or so the recent joke goes. We’ve seen such a transformational shift in the way that organisations do their business since March 2020, that you would be forgiven for thinking that this isn’t a joke at all. 


Often when our backs are against the wall we create our best work, make the best decisions, make the change we’ve been putting off for ever. Terrible situations often force us to dig deep, and find the resilience needed to grow or push us to change. Has COVID-19 done this for data and the leaders in business trying to drive the agenda?


In many ways the GDPR legislation that came in during 2018 put data front and centre of the Board for a short period. Many, to simply ensure compliance to the legislation but for the more forward thinking companies, they used it as an opportunity to invest in their approach and outcomes from data not just to be legal but to add value also. GDPR gave a moment of clarity and motivation for organisations. 


COVID-19 is one of those moments also. Organisations are fast finding that the lack of investment in skills, capabilities, strategies for data hurt in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown. When confusion and angst reigned, the data to make thoughtful, fact based and non-emotive decisions just wasn’t there for many.


In light of the uncertain environment we find ourselves in, we were keen to get a temperature check on how Chief Data Officers (CDO) and their organisations are responding. We looked to do that through a survey to our CDO Hub members from across the globe during April and May.


What did we find out from the CDO Hub members?


Rather unsurprisingly 60% of respondents stated that the priority for the business was around mission critical work, cash protection and cost reduction. A further 12% were in pure survival mode.  However,  25% of respondents stated that Growth was the top priority of the business which highlights that some were getting on the front foot and finding ways to ensure they get ahead.  There was a fairly even 50/50% split between those where this was a change since COVID-19.


In terms of the state of the data strategy for CDO’s, 18% of the respondents were writing a strategy for the first time either in response to COVID-19 or it was in flight already. 50% though were having to pivot their strategy to reflect the changes being forced on them from these external factors. This was supported by the 60% of CDO’s that define data as being ‘more important than ever’ in response to the COVID-19 situation. CDOs are seeing that their data and analytics teams have been brought into more focus, many now working on a greater increase in ad hoc requests reflecting the need of business leaders to try and work out what’s happening and their next move.


It’s all about the data


With data more important than ever, data strategies needing to adjust around internal and external changes through business priority adjustments, CDOs certainly have their work cut out. It’s so important to have a plan and operating model that allows you to be agile and responsive. All the time, not just in response to a major disaster. The ability to change course, adjust focus, deliver data products quickly are starting to separate those that can get ahead from those that are trying to catch up.


In terms of technology one of the major themes that came out was getting access to data to more people and having the tools that allow that. 57% of respondents were prioritising opening up tools to a wider audience and getting dashboards and reports with the right metrics in front of the right people. With the move to remote working we expected a larger percentage of people to be focusing on accelerating their move to the Cloud but this was the case for only 6% of respondents.


The final set of questions we asked focussed on the effect of COVID-19 on the emotive drivers, sentiment and leadership from CDO’s. We found that no respondents were feeling in shock, denial or angry at the moment. Most were accepting (45%) or Optimistic (39%) of the situation. This may reflect that many completed the survey in April and early May but a really positive vibe from the CDO community. 


Looking ahead


In terms of future outlook, again nearly half the respondents (48%) are optimistic about the future, 9% feeling average about what’s to come and 15% were pessimistic about the outturn in the coming months and years. 


As one respondent noted “In crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognise the opportunity” (quoted from John F Kennedy). Are CDO’s, their teams and their businesses well set up to cope with the ongoing impact of COVID-19? Are they getting ready for the next crises, internal change, external impact with strong foundations and methods? Time will tell.


Download PDF of the Survey Results

Written by Jason Foster


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