The Judo Of The CDO: The 3 Sutras Of The Modern Information Blackbelt

Tina Tang

Last week I was grateful to host 35 chief data officers in Palo Alto for the 2nd annual MIT Chief Data Officer Forum West event. I just marked my two-year anniversary working on MIT’s Chief Forrester Answers the Question: Does My Org Need a CDO?Data Officer executive committee, helping build their CDO program. I have learned many life lessons from this versatile yet expert group of executives. Many times I’ve felt like “Grasshopper” from the 1970s TV show Kung Fu (and the 1980s movie The Karate Kid, for those of us who were not yet around in the 70s) compared to the black-belt level mastery of the many and varied disciplines CDOs have racked up.

I’d like to share three “sutras” I’ve learned from these masters:

1.  Prepare a foundation as solid as a boulder in a stream.

In traditional industries like consumer-packaged goods, manufacturing, transportation, and healthcare, data is often viewed as a byproduct. The rise of technology companies such as Uber, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and LinkedIn reveal to the establishment what the possibilities are if data IS the business.

Hawick, Scottish Borders, Scotland, UK --- Water Flowing Over Rocks; Hawick Scottish Borders Scotland --- Image by © John Short/Design Pics/Corbis

Without an established data culture, you will struggle to maintain a reliable and accurate data foundation. Your data and information must be fit for purpose before the organization can tackle the big, sexy initiatives like undergoing digital transformation, joining the networked economy, or even deploying executive dashboards to visualize sales KPIs. Much of this foundational work is developing policies and rules, implementing the technology to automate as much as possible, and good ol’ politics.

SAP’s head of enterprise data management and defacto CDO Maria Villar emphasizes: Don’t stop there! A CDO knows that this phase offers its own benefits and can be used as leveraged to further the corporate strategy. Cultivate the art of believability by capturing, measuring, and publishing business metrics and benefits experienced such as productivity gains, increased sales of products and services, and improved service. And as Suzanne Frey, director of security and policy for Google Apps emphasized, cybersecurity should not be afterthought, but in the DNA. Techniques like threat modeling help developers build in features that can thwart attacks.

2. Be flexible like bamboo.

Change can be hard. Adopting new processes, using new or unfamiliar systems and even new reporting structures often are met with some resistance if the transition is not managed well. Change management techniques can go a long way to mitigate these potential obstacles.

Bamboo lined path

Dr. Nicholas Marko, who is both neurosurgeon and CDO for Geisinger Health Systems in Pennsylvania, shared this aspirational analogy for how change could be experienced: Smartphones have become ubiquitous, personal, and essential to our productivity. Many of us use them daily, put them on our nightstands, and feel we could not live without them. So how is it that whenever there is a new smartphone hardware upgrade available, people stand in line outside overnight to pay for this disruption in their lives?

Change management techniques for data driven organizations include mobilizing, modernizing, and streamlining design and UX (consumerization of enterprise applications) for a changing workforce and – wait for it – storytelling. Theresa Kushner, VP of enterprise data management and de facto CDO at VMWare says her masters degree in communications has been the perfect preparation for being a CDO. Amanda Marko, president of The Connected Strategy Group, writes, “The secret to making your data- driven change stick is to find a common language. It is the responsibility of CDOs, CIOs, and CAOs, as well as their team members who are leading change, championing initiatives, and heading teams, to learn to translate data into the language of people: stories.”

3. See with the eyes of the eagle.

With a reliable data foundation in place, the CDO can now see out on the horizon and imagine what is possible with the technology of today and plan for the future. The CDOs and I were treated to a private screening of the documentary film by Sandy Smolan, The Human Face of Big Data. The film inspired everyone in the room to think in new ways about what is possible in a world where everything leaves a digital footprint and can therefore create data. This data, from sources like medical devices, machinery, public transport, and wearables can then be used to find patterns and trends, helping human kind find answers and opportunities, predict the future, and avoid disaster.

Tokyo, Japan --- Tokyo cityscape --- Image by © Iplan/amanaimages/Corbis

An example of the life-changing potential of Big Data is Intel’s work in personalized medicine in partnership with the Stanford School of Medicine. With a patient’s mapped genome, it is possible to prescribe the right medication for the person, saving lives, money, and reducing suffering.

Another example of improving lives with Big Data is SAP customer, the city of Boston. Officials and residents of the city committed 
to creating a more livable, cleaner, and safer city, while becoming more efficient and productive. They focused their attention on turning realtime data into measurable results. To do so, they monitored how city agencies perform, and pinpointed areas needing improvement. The city of Boston’s performance metrics system, Boston About Results, has not only helped transform the city, but also garnered the Driving Digital Government Award.

There are commercial applications of Big Data as well, and they are also helping companies find new revenue streams, provide better and more personalized customer service, and improve the safety of their equipment like trains and airplanes.

These three sutras summarize my lessons learned, though the details are, of course, how the magic works. To get down to the details with these chief data officers, I recommend meeting up with us in 2016 at the MIT campus for the MIT CDO and Information Quality Symposium. With appreciation and respect for the chief data officers I have learned so much from, I look forward to continuing my lessons.

Tina Tang

About Tina Tang

Tina Tang is senior director in SAP’s Digital Platform division, where she leads SAP HANA machine learning, e-sports, and advanced analytics product marketing. With over 20 years in Silicon Valley, she is passionate about tech and diversity. Tina is a founding member of, and serves as a board member of Tina holds degrees from the University of Texas at Austin.