Chief Data Officers: Culture Change a High Data Management Hurdle

by   |   July 17, 2013 11:54 am   |   0 Comments

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Elizabeth McGrath’s woes in data governance are likely unique; she serves as the deputy chief management officer at the Department of Defense, which employs 3.3 million people and has more than 2,500 separate IT systems, at least that she knows of.

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In her words, “I’m thinking that’s too many.”

Trying to stitch together those systems into a comprehensive system with global policies is a huge task. The Pentagon spends $38 billion dollars annually on IT; $7 billion on business IT that McGrath manages in her role of the Department of Defense’s de facto chief data officer.

At that scale, normal data problems can devolve into huge problems somewhat easily.

“It’s an extremely daunting portfolio,” McGrath said in her keynote at MIT’s Chief Data Officer Forum on July 16. “It makes data governance and management all the more crucial.”

Chief data officers are a relatively new and rare breed of executive, so there is no roadmap for carving out the role inside an organization. At the CDO Forum at the Sloan School of Management on Tuesday, it was clear as attendees swapped stories and strategies that no two chief data officers have the same job description.

But they all have similar problems to McGrath, from governance to standards to buy-in from business leaders.  At the heart of those problems is the effort to create a new culture in their organizations where data is treated as a valuable shared resource and used to make better informed business decisions.

McGrath, who spoke via video conference, stressed the need to work with stakeholders in the business and empower them to create and enforce data standards on their own that reach across the organization.

When core standards for data are set and processes are made more efficient, older legacy systems that aren’t carrying their weight can be retired, she said.

That effort also needs executive sponsorship – in her case, it goes up to the President, who is asking the Pentagon to cut costs – to ensure that data is shared across the organization.

“I was surprised how much cultural resistance there was, and is, to opening the data,” she said. “People believe data is power and their data is their data, and I can’t see it.”

For the Department of Defense, data sharing isn’t just about cost cutting. McGrath said data sharing can help prevent soldier and sailor suicides, a major initiative for the Pentagon. Even with that goal in the crosshairs, data sharing between commanding officers in the field, officers at military installations and medical personnel taking on the task has been difficult, she said.

Deborah Spencer, the director data architecture at heavy manufacturing company Cummins Inc., said changing culture can come down to working with the psychology of people in IT who have had control of business data. Spencer was an attendee at the CDO forum, and said she was recently hired by Cummins to create a system of global standards for the company.

“People are afraid to let go,” Spencer said. “They want to dictate standards from an IT perspective. They lose sight of the fact that’s it all for the business.”

Spencer said the manufacturing sector is behind industries like finance or health care in data management; many companies are still learning to value their data and not treat IT as simply the department that keeps the lights on.

After weeks of assessing Cummins’ needs Spencer brought in Sandhill Consultants to help implement a data modeling and management system from CA. But that technology would only work if she was able to change the culture at Cummins and get IT and the business stakeholders to work together to set data standards, she said.

Email Staff Writer Ian B. Murphy at

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