The Data Leader's Solution

Ryan den Rooijen
Ryan den Rooijen

More than two years ago, I started this blog by posing the question: "How can we move from simply having data to using it to deliver positive impact?" As I shared in The Data Leader's Dilemma, there is no clear answer. Data leaders are often torn having to decide which areas to focus on or what competencies to develop. No wonder there are so many different types of Chief Data Officers. Today I am offering a solution to this challenge – or at least, my solution.

As a data leader, I have greatly enjoyed working on designing efficient data organisations, building the right analytics capabilities, recruiting high performing teams, instilling a strong product culture, establishing the right foundations for AI, and guaranteeing our work's fairness; these efforts have been interesting, meaningful, and rewarding. And yet, and yet... To have true impact with data, as this article suggests, the business itself needs to change.

Sometimes what changes is not what needs to change. Photo by Chris Lawton.

During the darkest days of the pandemic, I wrote about the importance of leadership's engagement with data and analytics: "CEOs need to roll up their sleeves and actively role model data driven decision making, demonstrating that this is [..] the new normal. In a world that is anything but, data driven decision making should be the norm." The problem is that this is a far easier matter to proselytise than it is to implement across the business.

92.2% of mainstream companies report that they continue to struggle with cultural challenges relating to organizational alignment [..] and resistance or lack of understanding to enable change. (HBR, Feb 2021)

Therefore, I am taking on a new challenge as Chief Ecommerce Officer of the Chalhoub Group. To paraphrase JFK, I am choosing to do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Years ago at Google, I learned the perils of too often serving in advisory roles. At best, things do not move as quickly as you would like, while at worst, you are seen as a backseat driver; out of touch with the wider organisation. I would love to see more data leaders on the front lines.

The opportunity that ecommerce presents is unique. Not only is any company's success in this area inherently linked to its data capabilities, but it is also a challenge that requires complex multidisciplinary teams to address. This is not dissimilar to successfully building a data team, an endeavour that also takes a village. From a commercial perspective, ecommerce is also the most important growth driver for retailers, particularly given the impact of the pandemic.

Ecommerce might be a clear prize but it requires data to win. Photo by Massimiliano Morosinotto.

There is a paradox in many data leaders complaining about a lack of business engagement or data culture, and yet only ever moving from data role to data role. At a certain point, surely one would hope to see some Chief Data Officers becoming Chief Commercial Officers, Chief Operating Officers, or even Chief Excutives Officers? Instead of worrying about data leaders, perhaps we should focus on championing executives who lead with data.

Going forward, I will share perspectives on how data and commercial functions can work more closely together to deliver meaningful impact with data at scale. Hopefully, I will also be able to demonstrate that appointing a data leader into an operational role is one way of both fostering a data-driven culture and increasing profitability. After all, we need more people in the business to lead with data as much as we need continued investment in data & analytics teams.

– Ryan

Digital Transformation

Ryan den Rooijen

Chief Strategy Officer of Appsbroker CTS, the leading Google-dedicated consultancy. Formerly Chief Ecom & Data Officer.