The role of a chief data officer (CDO) has changed significantly over the past decade. Ten years ago, the job title was, more typically, data processing manager or head of data processing, and the job itself tended not to be recognised as a driver of added value.
Today, few senior decision-makers within technology businesses go more than a day without running up against privacy and security. The world has become so digitally interconnected that the role of the CDO has shifted from being about meeting operational requirements to performing the difficult balancing act between ensuring compliance and helping deliver the organisation’s strategic goals.
In line with this, it is crucial that CDOs avoid simply vetoing projects or putting a brake on them arising from compliance concerns. Instead, when dealing with any data request, they need first to understand what are the goals or objectives of the person making the request and then try to facilitate the request in a way that drive the operational goal, but at the same time protects privacy and safeguards security.
It could be that a direct approach does not work, simply because the law prevents it, but there may still be another way to achieve the same result. For example, most global laws stipulate that certain types of information cannot be used without the express consent of the individual. Yet, there may be related types of information that can be used under the right circumstances.
In the healthcare space, it is not unusual to receive requests for records showing a patient’s date of birth for use in specific kinds of project. Typically, in such a case the CDO will ask the obvious question: “Why do you need this piece of information?” to which the answer will generally be: “Well we need to know how old somebody is.”
In reality, the date someone was born does not tell you that. It tells you how to calculate how old they are. The data you are really looking for is not the date of birth of the individual concerned, but it is their age. And in this context, age is less critical and less sensitive than date of birth.
This is a perfect example of how a CDO can help to answer the key question – is there another way to get to the objective on which we are focused– in this case how old someone is - without exposing sensitive data and potentially breaching compliance requirements?
Another common example is where someone from the business asks for the names and addresses of everyone in a given area of a town with a view to understanding how many people are buying a product from this area. Again, by looking at the objective rather than just the request, the CDO can discover that the person does not actually need (or truly want) any personally identifiable information. They don’t need to know who these individuals are, but simply how many of them bought the product.
In line with this, the role of the CDO should never be simply to block progress but rather to help people within the business understand what they are looking to achieve and if there is another way of doing it that better meets compliance needs. Defining the objectives in terms of the goals rather than the inputs.
The negotiating and consultancy element of this is important because many people within the organisation immediately focus on the data that they think they can access rather than looking first at their end goal and what they require to achieve it. That’s where the CDO can help de-conflict ostensibly opposing needs for compliance and business benefit - and ultimately still get to the same result.
Of course, there will inevitably be certain objectives that simply cannot be fulfilled for compliance reasons. But for the most part, if organisations are acting ethically and within the law, there will be a way that they can achieve their business goals with respect to data. It is key that CDOs look to facilitate this. They don’t want to be regarded as an impediment. After all, no CDO that is perceived to be preventing the organisation from achieving its goals, will ultimately ever be successful.
At the end of the day, the CDO needs to understand what the organisation is trying to do and give them the ability to do it in a way that is not only compliant but also builds trust. Not only for the organisation and its customers and consumers, but also for their own role within the organisation. That way, they can get buy-in and be seen as part of the solution rather than an inhibitor to it.
By Ken Mortensen, Data Protection Officer, Global Trust & Privacy, InterSystems