Five things the CEO wants to know about Big Data

Five things a CEO needs to know about big dataI spend a lot of time talking to companies about big data and data science. Many conversations are with people at the CxO level (CEO’s, COO’s, CFO’s, etc etc) and usually revolve around basic discussions of big data and data analytics.   One of the things that has surprised me a little from these discussions is that these CxO level people have the same basic questions about big data.

Those of us who are consultants and practitioners within the big data space like to wax poetic about big data and data science like to think that ‘this time is different’ and that big data is really going to change things for the better for any company.   While that may be the case, there are still some very basic questions that need to be answered within every organization before any major investment is made. The questions that I hear most from CxO level people can be categorized into the following types of questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. Why do we care?
  3. How is this different than {insert name of previous approach here}?
  4. What is this going to cost?
  5. Who is going to manage this?

All valid questions and all questions that should be expected when any major initiatives are being discussed. Additionally, these questions shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone that’s been around CxO level folks before…but they often come as a surprise to many technical people because many think that big data ‘just makes sense’ and should be implemented immediately. The problem with this line of thinking is that it is the exact same type of thinking that has led organizations down many other non-fruitful paths in the past.

For example, I can think back to my early days in telecom and remember my very first job out of college. I was a software tester working on a new hardware platform that was being designed / built to offload data traffic from the public telephone network (PSTN) onto an ATM network. This was cutting edge stuff at the time during the late 1990’s when getting online meant to connect your modem to the PSTN.   The market research had been performed to show that a need existed for this and many discussions where held with technical people at many different telecom service companies. Everything looked great for this particular company until the time came to sell the product.  The CxO level people at these telecom companies were basically asking the questions I’ve listed above…and the answers weren’t compelling enough to warrant an investment in this new, unproven technology.  Sadly, the company I worked for shut down this particular product line after finding no real interest in the product.

Some of you may be thinking that my example is quite different than big data, Sure, there are proven examples of big data initiatives bringing fantastic rewards for organizations – but there are also many other examples of big data initiative failures so it makes sense that companies are cautious when it comes to new technology /initiatives.

When it comes to your big data initiatives, can you answer the above five questions for your organization?

Digital Transformation – Are CEO’s and CIO’s aligned?

Digital TransformationI just read “Digital transformation will shape 2016” over on and was a a passage caught my eye.

Before I give you the passage, let me put the sentence into context.  The CIO article is discussing a recent IDC report titled ‘IDC FutureScape: Worldside CIO Agenda 2016 Predictions.’ This report provides some predictions on what the CIO and IT  will be focused on for the coming year(s).

The passage that caught my eye was this one:

According to IDC, the biggest issues in IT leadership will center on business needs, capabilities and availability related to digital transformation. The data shows that two-thirds of CEOs plan to focus on digital transformation strategies for 2016 and that CIOs will be major players in leading every department through this shift. In terms of capabilities, only 25 percent of CIOs report feeling confident in how they are driving new digital revenue streams.

Emphasis mine.

When I read that paragraph, I was a bit perplexed as to how two-thirds of CEO’s will be focused on digital transformation and the CIO will a ‘major player’ in leading these initiatives while at the same time only one-quarter of CIO’s felt confident in how they and their teams are driving new digital initiatives and revenue streams.

Now – before anyone skewers me, I do realize that digital transformation is about much more than finding new revenue streams. Digital transformation covers all aspects of the business from finding new revenue streams to reducing costs throughout the business via technology.  CIO’s know how to do the latter…but as we see from the survey, not many of them are confident they can do the former.

If CEO’s are going to be focused on digital transformation in 2016 and CIO’s are going to be one of the leaders of those initiatives, one would think that those CIO’s would be much more confident in their capabilities (and abilities) to drive revenue. Right?

Sure, CIO’s can help to drive digital transformation without ‘knowing’ how they are doing with digital revenue streams, but if I were a CEO, I’d want to know my CIO had a real handle on all things digital, including how digital is driving revenue.  Alternatively, if I were a CIO and I knew the CEO was focusing on digital transformation, I’d be doing everything in my power to make sure I (and my team) were fully up to speed on what we were doing, planning to do and could potentially do in the coming year.

Based on the responses in this survey, I worry that the the CEO and CIO aren’t quite on the same page when it comes to digital transformation going into 2016.

The Role of the CEO – Driving Corporate Culture

The role of the CEOI’m sure there are many definitions of a CEO out there. Plenty of people will say the CEO should be a leader, manager, communicator and facilitator.  Other’s might say that the CEO is the person most focused on strategy and the ‘future’ of the business.

Investopedia defines the CEO as:

The highest ranking executive in a company whose main responsibilities include developing and implementing high-level strategies, making major corporate decisions, managing the overall operations and resources of a company, and acting as the main point of communication between the board of directors and the corporate operations. The CEO will often have a position on the board, and in some cases is even the chair.

Not a bad definition of the role. It does highlight the main functions of a CEO…but I’d like to add some commentary about the role of the CEO that isn’t highlighted in  that definition or in most definitions of CEO that I’ve found.

The one addition that I would add to the definition? Culture.

The CEO must be the owner and driver of corporate culture.  If culture is an important aspect of the competitive advantage for a business, the ownership of the company’s culture must live with the CEO.

If you want your business to be ‘customer focused’, that needs to be the main focus of your organization’s culture. You can’t just say to your front-line people that they should be focused on the customer…you have to live and breath ‘customer focus.’   If you want your business to be ‘agile’, you’ve got to ensure everything about your business screams “agility”.

Recently, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, was asked about his role these days. His answer? He focus on culture.  The full response was:

My main job today: I work hard at helping to maintain the culture. A culture of high standards of operational excellence, of inventiveness, of willingness to fail, willingness to make bold experiments. I’m the counterbalance to the institutional “no” who can say “yes.” I’m not going to be here forever. Many of the traits that make Amazon unusual are now deeply ingrained in the culture. In fact, if I wanted to change them, I couldn’t. The cultures are self-reinforcing, and that’s a good thing

Here we see the guy that started Amazon saying that his main goal isn’t making day-to-day decisions on operations (although he does chime in when he needs to) but his main job is maintaining and driving the company’s culture.

A company’s culture is pervasive and requires leadership from ‘on high’ like that provided by Bezos. One of the most important role’s of the CEO is to help drive and shape corporate culture. Sure, the other stuff is important as well, but without a culture that fits the business strategy, your business might just spin its wheels.

Links for Dec 20 2009

Storytelling on the web by Rob Mills on Carsonified

Long Tail Vs. The Blockbuster by Paul Barsch on Marketing Profs Daily Fix

5 strategies for a better 2010 by Mark Riffey on Business is Personal

Quality-of-Hire Quandary of 2009: What Went Wrong With Notre Dame and Charlie Weis? by Josh Letourneau on Fistful of Talent

How to Create Successful Product Websites that People Love by Maki on Dosh Dosh

The S Word by Andrew McAfee

The State of EA in 2010 by Mike Rosen on The Cutter Blog | Debate Online

Building a Business | The Most Important Ingredient by Kneale Mann on One Mann’s Opinion

The CEO is Only One Person by John Hunter on Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog

The Storyteller’s Tale: How a Fiction Mindset Will Empower Your Blog by Darren Rowse on ProBlogger Blog Tips

Why Cross-Selling Works by Scott Sehlhorst on Tyner Blain

No silver bullets. Really! by Peter Kretzman on CTO/CIO perspectives

How to Fix IT Planning by Chris Curran on CIO Dashboard

Craft a Narrative to Instill Optimism by John Baldoni on

Warfighting: The US Marine Corps on agility by Don Sull

Indecision Kills Startups by Ben Yoskovitz on Instigator Blog

User adoption: Killer app for SOA and Enterprise 2.0 by Michael Krigsman on Enterprise Irregulars

21st Century Strategy in Four Words by Umair Haque on

Communication And Project Leadership: The 2009 Model by Bas de Baar on Project Shrink

You Can’t Outsource Accountability by Justin Kownacki

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