2024 marks the 12th consecutive year for the data leader survey I’ve run for NewVantage Partners (now Wavestone). As you might imagine, Generative AI is in many ways the star of the show. Its explosive growth during 2023 took nearly everyone by surprise. Now that the surprise is starting to subside, let’s look at some of the implications based on the detailed input in this AI survey from data leaders at more than 100 top global brands.

  1. Data and AI investments are coming due. Unsurprisingly, leading companies continue to make big investments in data and analytics, but 2023 showed a sharp increase in the expectation that they would deliver business value. I believe this is one dynamic that led more Fortune 1000 CDOs to leave their jobs in 2023 than during any previous time over the past 15 years. Essentially, a lot of company leaders came to their CDOs and said, now that we’ve made all these investments in infrastructure and cloud migration and analytics tools, how have we moved the ball in terms of increasing revenue, profitability, customer acquisition, and customer satisfaction? Because a fair number of CDOs really couldn’t sufficiently quantify those metrics to the satisfaction of the organization, they came to a parting of the ways. 
  2. GenAI has pushed CDOs to center stage. Companies see GenAI as the most transformative technology in a generation. More than 62 percent of respondents in our survey said GenAI is a top organizational priority, with nearly 90 percent increasing investment in 2024. Since data lives with the CDO in most large organizations, executives turned to CDOs and asked, “What’s our strategy for GenAI? What’s our plan?” That made at least one CDO feel like “the belle of the ball” after laboring in obscurity for years, but those unready to respond to the GenAI call either changed tack quickly or moved on from their current companies. 
  3. The AI highway needs better guardrails. Nearly every survey respondent, 99 percent, agreed that putting safeguards and guardrails in place to govern proper use of AI was essential. Even a casual look to the headlines shows the risks of misinformation, disinformation, and ethical bias. So how many organizations have guardrails in place today? Fewer than two-thirds of them, or 62.9 percent. This 36-point gap widens when we ask whether they have the talent on hand to responsibly implement GenAI. Just a hair over half do, at 50.5 percent. 

The growing influence of data and analytics
The outsized influence of GenAI becomes clear when you look across trends in survey responses from the past five years. For example:

  • Organizations driving business innovation from data jumped from 59.5% to 77.6%
  • Organizations competing on data and analytics increased from 40.8% to 50.0%
  • Organizations managing data as a business asset rose significantly from 39.5% to 49.1%
  • Organizations reporting to have created a data-driven culture more than doubled from 23.9% to 48.1%
  • Organizations stating that they have established a data and analytics culture also more than doubled from 20.6% to 42.6% 

A primary factor in these significant upticks is the appearance of generative AI and the awareness that it created as well as the increasing push for business value. After years and years of spend, in other words, the time has come for data leaders to deliver results and get GenAI into business use cases as quickly as possible, while ensuring that they do so responsibly.

Are CDOs future-ready? 
We’ve come a long way from the wholesale job cuts of 2008 and 2009, when entire data and analytics teams were eliminated. Yet a lot of ambiguity still exists around the role of the Chief Data Officer. A few years back, only 35 percent said the role was successful and well established. Today we see a heartening climb in this metric to 51 percent. That’s good news, but the leadership AI survey also reveals that 6.3 percent said the CDO role was an outright failure at their company while 42.7 percent said the role was nascent, evolving, and plagued by turnover.  

It’s helpful to consider that the CDO role is still relatively new, and that it was much more defensive than offensive in its original form. It was about making sure that company data was accurate, reliable, timely, and ticked all the right compliance boxes. It wasn’t until recently that the CDO started to assume a more offensive, business growth, revenue generation, and business development character. And it was only then that organizations started to think in terms of analytics being part of the CDO role. 

GenAI sheds more positive light on the CDO, but also brings new wrinkles to the organization. Although the plurality of CDOs, nearly 80 percent, said that GenAI should be part of their function, Chief AI Officers are entering the organizational fray as well. A third of the organizations that participated at a recent Chief Data Officer (CDO) and Chief AI Officer (CAIO) Summit where I moderated the opening CDO panel were in the process of hiring or had hired a Chief AI Officer. This pattern begs a few questions:

  • Why do we have a CAIO if we also have a CDO? 
  • Should one supplant the other, or should the two be merged in some fashion? 
  • If most Chief AI Officers are being brought in for defensive purposes – to establish those legal and ethical guardrails that are missing at many organizations – is this a new role that CDOs should welcome? 

Leaving aside the CDOs who have simply left their companies and updated their title to CAIO, I believe the CDO is still an essential player. CDOs have been monitoring the evolution of AI and know where it fits within their organization. And any way you slice it, good AI depends upon a foundation of excellent data, which is where the CDO shines.

Continuing down the business value path
If I can leave the reader with one theme, it’s that the CDOs who are most successful today are the ones who share a few qualities:

  • They have become more aligned with the business and with business sponsorship. 
  • They are making sure that investments in data and analytics are being tied to specific business outcomes. 
  • They have stopped assuming everybody understands the importance of data and analytics and started speaking in business terms. 
  • They have established a strong relationship with key business leaders and key business sponsors in their organizations.

At this point it’s almost a telltale sign of trouble when I hear a CDO say, “We’re building such great capabilities and we’re doing such amazing things, so why doesn’t anybody recognize it?” What you really want is to hear your business leaders saying, “We couldn’t have done what we’re doing with the organization without the support and partnership of our chief data officer and chief analytics team.” 

Some CDOs have come into their role by being subject matter experts. That’s understandable. But CDOs need to become more well-rounded as leaders and business leaders as well. That means building relationships and communicating in language that everybody can buy into. It’s also about managing data as a business asset. When that happens, long, healthy CDO tenures take root.