Are today’s leaders ready for the coming era of data domination?


Financier Worldwide Magazine

August 2015 Issue

August 2015 Issue

Daniel Zhang, the recently appointed chief executive of Alibaba, doesn’t believe the e-commerce juggernaut he leads is an ‘e-commerce company’ per se – despite the fact it generated more than $12bn in revenue primarily through sales made via the internet last year.

Instead, Alibaba, the eBay-like platform that was founded in China in 1999, is a data company, according to Mr Zhang. Due to the amount of user-specific information generated through the service – Alibaba processed 278 million orders in a single day last year – Mr Zhang says his company is able to paint very accurate pictures of its customers that include whether they’re married, if they have kids, what their favourite brands are, what time of day they place their orders, what they do for fun, what devices they prefer, etc. – the list goes on and on. That data can then be used to more successfully target Alibaba’s customers. “We believe data is oil in the new economy,” Mr Zhang said at Nielsen’s Consumer 360 Conference in June.

How’s that for a wake-up call?

Today, organisations across all verticals are generating more information than ever before to the point where it’s almost banal to talk about in the first place. Some suggest that a whopping 90 percent of the world’s data was created within the last few years. As such, organisations might soon find themselves replacing their gigabytes, terabytes and petabytes with exabytes, zettabytes and yottabytes (for comparison’s sake, a yottabyte is equivalent to one trillion terabytes).

While it may be hard for most of us to wrap our heads around these kinds of enormous numbers, it’s likely easier to consider the implications the ongoing influx of large swaths of data will have – or is already having – on organisations. So to avoid drowning in a rising ocean of data, so to speak, organisations need to make adjustments to the way they govern their information.

But successful governance of this rising ocean requires more than mere incremental fixes. In fact, it requires a complete change in the way that organisational leaders think about and manage their data.

Let’s suppose, as Mr Zhang suggests, that data really is the oil of today’s economy. His comparison probably still comes up a little short, though, because unlike the oil prospectors of yore who struck black gold and got rich overnight, today’s organisations not only need data to be successful, they also need to be able to manage and govern that data effectively. And beyond that, they need to be prepared to respond to whatever ‘oil spills’ of sorts may materialise in their respective industries (e.g., government investigations, regulations or lawsuits).

In other words, virtually any organisation today can produce and collect copious amounts of information. But how many of them have the tools and processes in place that will allow them to leverage their data in such a way that will help them become the next Rockefeller of their respective industry? And how many of them are prepared to respond to crises in such a way that prevents them from becoming the next Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

With all this considered, it becomes clear that the winners in the coming era of data domination will not simply be the organisations that have the best IT in place or are able to store the most data. Rather, the winners will be the ones that can successfully manage and marshal their seemingly infinite data to their advantage – all in the context of a complex legal, regulatory and ethical global operating environment.

These intricate challenges have caused many organisations to realise that the chief information officer (CIO) cannot masterfully handle these pressing responsibilities alone. Generally speaking, CIOs are focused on the tools and technologies organisations need to be successful – not how ever-increasing mountains of information across all of the various organisational facets should be governed.

Understanding the CIO’s need for reinforcements, some organisations have chosen to adopt a new C-suite role: the chief information governance officer (CIGO).

The case for the chief information governance officer

The CIGO is a new kind of leader who is responsible for coordinating information activities across multiple organisational functions (e.g., IT, analytics, big data, privacy, legal, and business intelligence) while setting and executing a strategic information agenda. Generally speaking, CIGOs work to bridge gaps across typical information-related functions and provide leadership, coordination, and balancing and prioritising.

More broadly, CIGOs are responsible for figuring out how to tap into the value side of their data (e.g., personalisation in marketing campaigns) while managing it in such a way that protects it from the risk side of information (e.g., lawsuits).

CIGOs also serve to coordinate information-related functions, working to break down any information silos so that organisations can realise additional synergies and better leverage their data on an enterprise-wide scale. Finally, CIGOs work to balance the risk side of information with its value side, crafting unique information governance plans that tie in with their organisations’ business strategies.

What exactly would a typical day in the life of a CIGO look like? That depends primarily on two factors – the maturity of an organisation’s information governance (IG) program, and the needs that are specific to the organisation itself. For example, a CIGO at an organisation that has an IG program only in its infancy probably wouldn’t start building a full compliance auditing program right away. Instead they would begin by building relationships between the various facets of IG; reviewing and revising existing IG policies; and assessing current IT infrastructure to understand how and where information is being stored, among other things.

As an organisation’s IG program matures, the CIGOs’ responsibilities become more advanced. At these more mature organisations, CIGOs coordinate all information-related activities on an organisation-wide scale, ensuring the organisation is meeting its legal, regulatory and ethical obligations; supporting all IG facets to make sure they have the resources and support necessary to improve functionality; reviewing policies, infrastructure and procedures to make sure processes are streamlined and business value is easily extracted from information; and conducting regular auditing, automating as many of those functions as possible, among other things.

Where does this new executive report? This differs from organisation to organisation – what works best for one might not be right for another. But one thing is certain: where the CIGO’s position actually sits in the organisation has a huge effect on how it’s perceived. For example, workers are more likely to support IG initiatives when they originate at the C-level. While an organisation that has a mature IG program might want its CIGO to report directly to the CEO, those with less mature programs might choose to have its CIGOs report to the CIO or general counsel.

It’s not too challenging for an organisation to collect copious amounts of data today. But it can be extremely difficult to truly leverage the power of that information while at the same time protecting an organisation from the risks inherent in it. Since this is a virtually endless process, organisations that hire a dedicated executive for this function will almost certainly find themselves better positioned than their CIGO-less peers.

To thrive in the coming era of data domination, organisations simply need to make sure they have the right strategies, processes and – perhaps most importantly – people in place. If data is indeed the oil of the new economy as Mr Zhang suggests, then the CIGO needs to step up and not only be the explorer, driller and refiner, but also the regulator.


Barclay T. Blair is the president and founder of ViaLumina. He can be contacted on +1 (646) 450 4468 or by email:

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