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The New C-Level: UA-Little Rock Producing Chief Data Officers

5 min read

Chief data officer is an emerging C-level executive role, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is at the forefront of the trend with its new Institute for Chief Data Officers.

The program, established last summer as a joint effort by UA-Little Rock and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has two goals.

One is to use graduate assistants’ research to better define what a CDO is, helping companies recognize the benefits of adding a CDO and the skills they should want in seeking one. The students get to prepare for the job, and guest lecturers are already in place at the institute’s laboratory space on campus.

The institute’s other goal is to provide training to existing CDOs. At its first four-day training session, held in the fall, 12 professionals attended the session and received a certificate.

The institute is seeking investment from both public and private sources to accomplish those goals and has established a contract with Assesso Informática Ltda., a Brazilian company.

The contract is funding three Ph.D. candidates and providing the information technology company with data management research.

That’s not to say the institute’s services to professionals are free. There are 15 seats available at the this week’s second certificate training session, and each seat costs $2,995.

The training will also coincide with the first International Society of Chief Data Officers meeting to be held in Little Rock on Thursday and Friday.

The professional group and institute share the same director, MIT Professor Richard Wang.

What does a CDO do? That’s the first question people seeking more information about the institute typically ask. A CDO strategizes the best way a company can use its data to gain a competitive advantage, said John Talburt, the institute’s campus director.

“I think what companies are realizing is data is one of their primary assets,” Talburt said. “Companies used to the think about data as, sort of, a commodity they could buy and get whenever they needed it. They really depended more on their technology.

“We’re seeing a big reversal now.”

Talburt said the reversal is a result of increased access to free software and the ability of companies to process data cheaply.

“Having a bunch of programmers and developing proprietary software and coming up with fancy technology is not the competitive edge it used to be. Everybody is now on equal footing when it comes to technology,” he said.

So how you use your data is the new way to distinguish your business from a competitor’s, he said.

Talburt works closely with Wang to stay on top of trends, and they are relying on Gartner Inc.’s research.

The international research group is predicting 1,000 new CDO positions in the next year, Talburt said, adding that UA-Little Rock students are working to confirm that estimate.

Gartner also predicts that 90 percent of large organizations will have a CDO by 2019.

By comparison, Wang said, there were only around 20 CDOs in the world in 2009, when he was asked to serve as the U.S. Army’s deputy chief data officer.

CIOs vs. CDOs
Companies may ask why they need a CDO in addition to a chief information officer, and Wang has an answer.

CIOs know data, Wang said, but they don’t have time to do what needs to be done with it because they are busy making sure employees’ computers work, cybersecurity protocols are in place and more.

Ideally, a CDO should work hand in hand with a CIO, he said.

“The bottom line is we’ve come to an era of data. … A general cannot fight a war without resources.” In addition, Wang said, preliminary research shows businesses with CDOs perform better than those without.

Wang’s belief that data is an increasingly critical issue challenging corporations around the world led him to found the institute at UA-Little Rock last year and to serve as its executive director.

But Wang first started working for UA-Little Rock in 2005, when he was appointed a visiting university professor of information quality.

Wang helped set up the university’s master’s degree program in information quality in 2006. A Ph.D. track in that discipline has since been added.

A decade later, he stepped up again, and in more than one way, to establish the institute, which was approved by the Arkansas Department of Education late last summer.

Wang said the institute was initially funded by $140,000 provided by him; his wife, Yang Lee, professor of information, operations and analysis at Northeastern University; and his daughter, Forea Wang, a Ph.D. candidate in the neuroscience department of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Wang emphasized that the institute is seeking further investment from the public and private sectors in the form of research grants and contracts.

He declined to disclose the value of its first contract with Assesso Informática Ltda., but he said investing is a “great deal” for any company because the Ph.D. students under contract who work with their data would “be able to perform their job on day one” if they are hired after receiving their degrees.

‘A Golden Opportunity’
The institute is also overseen and partially funded by the office of Lawrence Whitman, dean of the Donaghey College of Engineering & Information Technology.

“The way I look at it is it’s a golden opportunity to partner with MIT in doing what universities do best, and that’s combine research and education,” Whitman said.

“A lot of people get put into the role of chief data officer and they’re not totally prepared for that. It’s kind of like learning how to swim by being thrown in.”

The institute is also funded in part by the college’s Department of Information Sciences, which includes the information quality programs and is chaired by Elizabeth Pierce.

She said the institute is “giving us an identity. One of the questions people always had was, ‘Well, what do I do with a graduate degree in information quality?’”

“What we’re finding is that the type of background we have in our curriculum is very good for preparing someone, careerwise, who wants to move into a leadership position with data, which equates to the chief data officer,” Pierce said. “It’s a very exciting area to be in.”

Talburt, the campus director, put it this way: “We’re trying to align our academics with the role of chief data officer so that there is a more direct line of sight from our program into this kind of role at the executive level.”

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