Oil, Data, And The Chief Data Officer In The Digital Economy

Katrin Lehmann

In today’s digital economy, it is often said that data is the new oil. In other words, data is to today’s economy what oil was in the previous century – the core commodity on which the entire economy is predicated.

While one could certainly push the analogy further (we drill for data, lift it to the surface, process it, refine it into insight, and distribute it), the main point is simple: Today, data is critical for business success. If we want to provide our customers with digital services, align our internal teams with a single version of the truth, or get moving with emerging technologies – all of this and much more requires data and sophisticated ways of managing it.

The advent of the CDO

With so much at stake when it comes to data, it only makes sense to put someone in charge of it. Hence, the advent of the chief data officer, or CDO. Here at SAP, I’m the first to serve in the CDO role.

To better explain how this role came about, let’s look at the evolution of SAP, which is like that of many other companies – one of growing complexity requiring sound data governance and management enterprise-wide. Nearly 50 years ago, when SAP first started, we had a single product that was installed on-premise. This product was sold by salespeople who met customers in person and drew up paper contracts that were filed in physical filing cabinets.

Now our portfolio of offerings has grown exponentially. We’re a cloud company today – even as we continue to sell and support on-premise solutions. And while our sales force is still face-to-face with the customer, we are aiming to enable additional digital channels to better support customer service. To serve our customers to the best of our abilities, we needed a data management strategy worthy of the digital economy. What we needed was digital transformation.

Transformation at SAP

A big part of our transformation effort at SAP has been the creation of the Global Business Operations organization, which brings together diverse teams ranging from IT, analytics, and data management to business development, sales, and compliance.

As CDO, it is my job to help get our data house in order to enhance visibility and facilitate collaboration across these teams. My own team, Enterprise Data Management, started with a simple goal in mind: to enhance the customer experience through better data governance.

But SAP depends on its people to deliver the kinds of experiences that keep customers engaged and loyal. This, in turn, meant that we needed to focus on improving the employee experience as well. Across a wide range of internal processes – sales, marketing, analytics, finance, and more – we set out to make it easier for our employees to find and share information, no matter where they are.

Standing in the way of improving customer and employee experiences was the reality of increased data complexity. At SAP, we had more than 700 systems in our landscape, with more data sources coming in from acquisitions and integration of external third-party data, such as Dunn and Bradstreet. The question was: How do we overcome our data complexity challenge?

A single source of truth

The missing lynchpin to better data management and governance at SAP was a single trusted authority for all enterprise data. Creating and maintaining this single source of truth is what the CDO position at SAP is all about.

Two areas, in particular, are relevant here:

  • Compliant, continuous operational excellence: On a daily basis, my team works with data stewards throughout SAP to maintain data governance rules, ensure data quality, and comply with regulations and ethical standards. We take pains to maintain data fields, enforce who are allowed to make changes, and make sure data is available for strategic digital transformation initiatives. We also focus on daily operations – for example, helping to ensure that sales teams across regions have the high-quality data they need to perform at the highest level. All of this is foundational. Without compliance and continuous operational excellence at the data level, there is no single source of truth on which SAP can rely.
  • Next-generation data experience: Our goal is to enable better insight into data sources – both internal and external. This data needs to be trusted, which can mean ensuring proper consent for the use of data or making sure the source is legitimate. We also aim to standardize our data-service offerings so that SAP employees can order up specific services for defined purposes. In fact, we built a digital boardroom and CDO portal for SAP’s internal purposes, showcased at SAPPHIRE NOW.

The next level of data management

All of this effort is aimed at helping SAP to move to the next level of data management. As CDO at SAP, I see it as my responsibility to work knee-deep in the data to ensure the highest levels of quality enterprise-wide. If data is new oil for the digital economy, then CDOs need to be on top of the rig, getting their hands dirty on a daily basis.

For more on digital business leadership, see Can The CIO Be The CDO?


Katrin Lehmann

About Katrin Lehmann

Katrin Lehmann heads up the Enterprise Data Management team as chief data officer for SAP. In this role, she is responsible for providing strategy, governance, and quality standards within SAP for all enterprise data domains. She reports to SAP’s COO on the Executive Board. As global data lead, Katrin acts as a trusted partner for all lines of business and board units. She works with IT, analytics, and product development teams on improving the quality of corporate master data to enable SAP to Run Simple.