Cementing a seat at the top table

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In 2021, PwC launched its first study into the role of the chief data officer (CDO)—a position we defined based on seniority, role in the organization, and scope of work, rather than just job title.

We found that few data leaders had been given genuine influence in their organizations. Although our analysis highlighted more references to data in corporate annual reports than ever, just 21% of the world’s leading 2,500 public companies had a CDO with executive-level (C-suite or C-minus-one) responsibilities in 2021. 

Our analysis this year shows this situation is changing.

CDO appointments have surged across most industries and regions, with 27% of leading firms now having a CDO in place. The presence of a CDO appears correlated with strong financial performance, perhaps reflecting the growing value of data and the tendency of high-performing, data-rich organizations to need CDOs. Value often comes when companies use data to innovate and seize new opportunities—though in their public statements, companies seem to be talking more about efforts to safeguard data and privacy than about fueling growth with data. In the article that follows, we’ll cover:

The rise of the chief data officer

The value of chief data officers

More data or better data?

Data protection or data innovation?

A lack of data maturity?

The future of the chief data officer

Making the most of the CDO role

The rise of the chief data officer

In the last few years, with the volume of data booming, more and more companies across sectors and regions have begun appointing executive-level CDOs. Our analysis this year found a 28.5% leap in the proportion of the world’s leading public companies that have a CDO. Across all industries and most parts of the world, CDOs are on the rise. Does this trend represent evidence that the CDO is cementing its place as a key part of organizational leadership, one that adds genuine value?

Europe’s leading companies now have proportionately more CDOs (42%) than North America’s (38%), driven by appointments in the UK, Switzerland, and Germany. We believe this is likely due to Europe’s greater regulatory emphasis on data privacy over the last few years, including several high-profile recent fines under the EU’s GDPR legislation. But with half of the world’s CDOs based in North America–headquartered companies, the region remains the leader in CDO skills, capabilities, and experience.

Across every industry, we found more CDO appointments have been made since our last study. The heavily regulated financial services industry—where effective use of data is vital for both reporting and compliance—continues to set the bar. Just over half of banks and insurers now have a CDO in place, a number that accounts for 22% of CDOs globally. But although we saw most CDOs appointed at banks (25), and capital goods (18) and software (13) firms this year, household and personal products, automotive, food and beverage, and retail organizations saw the highest year-on-year increase in the proportion of companies with a CDO.

Regardless of industry, CDO growth is still being driven by the largest companies—those with multimillion-dollar revenues and the largest head count. This is likely due to their greater organizational and technological complexity. However, CDO appointments are on the rise across businesses of all sizes. The emergence of CDO positions in midsized firms suggests the role is beginning to be more widely recognized as a useful way to help executive teams pursue business growth.

With the adoption of the CDO role gaining pace, different approaches and skill sets will be needed to capture and deploy data effectively at scale and improve organizational data maturity.

The value of chief data officers

The question all business leaders ask themselves before creating a new position is “What impact will this have?” It’s a difficult question to answer, because—unlike with the CFO or CMO—there’s no commonly accepted framework for measuring impact. As a recent University of Cambridge paper put it, “Despite the broad recognition of its value…, there is still no consensus method for empirically determining the value of data.”

What makes a chief data officer successful?

We’ve identified five key criteria for CDO success:

1. Give the CDO sole data strategy accountability and ownership. Data is too important to be just a part of the remit of the CIO, CTO, CISO, or any other role.

2. Ensure the CDO transcends organizational and functional silos. Data has a role to play across every part of the business, so data governance needs to be a horizontal, not a vertical.

3. Allow the CDO direct, regular contact with the CEO and board. This will ensure visibility and recognition of data opportunities and challenges.

4. Make the CDO the face of data strategy, internally and externally. Doing so signals investment and ensures data initiatives align with corporate strategy.

5. Provide board-level support to the CDO in establishing an open and transparent data culture. Encourage knowledge sharing through democratized access and use of data, and upskill employees to become more data-driven in finding new sources of growth and value.

Our research found that the role and responsibilities of a CDO remain ill-defined, in part because of the variance in data maturity across different businesses, but also because every organization’s needs are different. Across the 2,500 leading companies we analyzed, we found almost 500 different job titles that align to this position.

Although the CDO is not the kind of role where a job description can be copied from another organization—and a key part of the job description needs to focus on adaptability as the technological and regulatory landscape, as well as organizations’ data maturity, continues to evolve—we believe that the chief part of the job title is the most important.

One reason is that data is frequently an enabler of success for other functions or large-scale digital transformation programs, rather than the sole value driver.

Equally, the diversity of job descriptions for CDOs suggests there are multiple objectives, functions, and criteria for success. We’re seeing this same challenge across our client base, where there are many triggers for CDO appointments. They can be brought in as an ideas generator during a time of growth, where the CDO’s focus is on investment in new initiatives. Equally, they can be appointed as a firefighter during moments of crisis, to address a specific data challenge, such as a data breach, systems implementation, or quality concern.

But while it is difficult to prove a causal link, our research suggests that the presence of a CDO is correlated with stronger performance than that achieved by organizations without a dedicated executive-level data role.

The presence of a CDO is correlated with stronger performance than that achieved by organizations without a dedicated executive-level data role.

For every year since 2017, we found that companies with a CDO have higher relative growth rates of revenue and profitability, which we defined as EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization). Indeed, our analysis found that, for three-quarters of industries, organizations with a CDO see, at least, a net 5% improvement in revenue growth rates compared with organizations with no similar role in place. For some industries—utilities, real estate, and energy—this acceleration difference was as high as 25%.

Do these results reflect the growing value of data to business performance, and the fact that high-performing organizations often are data-rich, and therefore in need of CDOs? Does strong leadership in the role itself create value, or is it the commitment to data-driven excellence implied by its creation? It’s impossible to say with certainty, and the answer may be a combination of these factors.

What we can say is that in recent years, companies with a chief data officer have performed better than those without, and have secured a competitive advantage versus their industry peers without a CDO in place. And, of course, to the extent that awareness of this performance edge is permeating global C-suites, it may be contributing to the rise in the role we’ve simultaneously been seeing in our research.

More data or better data?

Business leaders have always known that good information is key to identifying the items that should be at the top of their agendas. But the paradox of today’s business environment is that while there’s more data than ever before, more doesn’t necessarily mean better.

The fundamental role of the chief data officer is to ensure that this information is high quality, timely, and well presented, so that leadership can make better-informed business decisions.

In times of uncertainty, good information is even more valuable—which may be why our analysis of thousands of annual reports over the last six years shows businesses are talking about data more than ever. We ran a natural-language-processing analysis of these reports to identify the frequency with which each company referred to data-related terms, and adjusted for report length for fairness of comparison. On average, corporate annual reports mentioned data 70 times in the last year, up nine over our last study. Companies with a CDO in place talked about data even more—an average of 87 times.

Business leaders know data could be a game changer if it’s leveraged effectively, and the increasing prominence of data in corporate reports suggests they believe their stakeholders understand this too. Contextually, our analysis found data mentioned alongside almost every other area of business, showing the relevance of its application to multiple business challenges, and its potential to improve understanding of and open up fresh opportunities in diverse arenas.

Data protection or data innovation?

When companies talk about data in their annual reports, our analysis found it is 30% more likely to be in a defensive context rather than mentioning data as a potential source of innovation and growth. (We assessed this contextual focus by analyzing how data was being referred to in relation to other topics and concepts in the same passage of text—again, across thousands of annual reports.)

That finding is consistent with what we saw last year, somewhat to our surprise: our clients are increasingly asking us about how to use data to identify areas for innovation—improving customer experience, pricing strategies, or monetizing data—rather than for defense. This has especially been the case in the last 12 months, as they have begun to look for paths to fresh growth in the wake of the pandemic and in the face of rising interest rates and inflation. We wondered if those tendencies would be reflected in how they are talking publicly about their application of data.

In fact, the gap has closed only slightly since last year’s study. One potential explanation for the continued focus on defensive action is rising geopolitical uncertainty, which has heightened anxiety about data security. Another is that around the world, corporate reporting requirements and data privacy obligations are changing fast, with the United Nations reporting that, as of late 2022, 80% of countries have either adopted or are in the process of drafting data protection laws. At the same time, data protection ranks as the top driver of trust in business by consumers, business leaders, and employees alike.

A lack of data maturity?

The continued emphasis on defensive data in corporate annual reports also could simply be an indication of how few organizations have reached data maturity.

PwC’s 2023 Global Digital Trust Insights survey found that half of its senior leadership respondents don’t feel sufficiently confident in their organization’s data governance and security to make decisions using data, and fewer than 5% of senior executives say they always implement all ten of the standard and leading practices to protect and govern customer data that have been identified by PwC.

Equally, because it can be extremely difficult to track the return on investment (ROI) from data-led innovation, many organizations have been nervous to experiment—and with so many CDOs new in their role, they may feel pressure to prove their value with more obvious wins, even if it means focusing on reducing risk rather than driving growth.

Whether measurable or not, it’s always going to be hard to drive innovation through data if your basic data foundations aren’t robust and secure. As businesses seek fresh paths to growth, investing in (and describing publicly) improved data foundations may go hand in hand with the kind of data-driven innovation more companies hope to achieve.

The future of the chief data officer

Given 2022’s growth figures and the current low proportion of companies to have appointed a CDO, we’re confident in suggesting that in the years ahead, even more companies will create seats at the top table for a data leader. It will be interesting to see if companies with a CDO continue to outperform as the role becomes more common.

We also wonder if there may be a natural saturation point. Hire rates appear to be slowing in North America and the banking sector as CDO penetration reaches 40 to 50%. It’s unclear where we are on the adoption curve in that geography and sector—could we be nearing its peak? Perhaps, though even if we are, there is still some way to go in many industries and regions, particularly in Asia, South America, and Latin America. The performance benefits associated with the role should not depend on geography.

There is also ample opportunity to improve the diversity of data leadership. To be sure, there is no perfect background or common set of skills for a CDO; they need a combination of functional and business experience.

Nonetheless, to date, just 21% of CDOs are women. Although the proportion of female CDOs increased by 20% in 2022—outpacing appointments of men to such roles—there is still a long way to go to make the CDO role more representative of the organization’s workforce and customers.

It will be interesting to see if the proportion of women appointed to CDO roles continues to grow faster than that of men, and if such a change would have a more positive impact on performance. Certainly, as boards and CEOs contemplate the composition of their C-suites, we’d encourage a focus on diversity, just as we’d encourage putting robust data leadership in place, both to construct strong, secure data foundations and to identify new, data-enabled sources of growth.

Making the most of the CDO role

In this period of heightened geopolitical and economic uncertainty, with businesses more aware than ever of their exposure to global shocks, and new, data-driven technologies continually proving their potential—from AI-generated imagery to rapid vaccine development—we believe every industry can benefit from the right approach to data. Our recommendations for companies at all points of the data maturity curve are as follows:

• For organizations that haven’t already appointed a CDO at executive level, given the increasing penetration rates across companies of all types, it’s worth considering adding the role to avoid competitors gaining an edge.

• For companies in industries and regions with lower levels of CDO adoption, the competitive edge a CDO can provide could be even greater than elsewhere. In tough economic conditions, the potential for data-driven revenue opportunities suggested by our analysis could be particularly welcome. Equally, ask what is the opportunity cost of failing to ensure your organization’s use of data is as effective as it can be?

• For companies that already have a CDO, our findings may increase the expectation that the CDO should help drive revenue growth from data. Businesses must consider how they will track and communicate a CDO’s impact without discouraging investment in foundational data transformation programs such as a data platform build, governance initiatives, or company-wide data education programs.

• For CDOs, to help demonstrate the value of your role, make time to innovate with data to drive growth as well as getting data management right for defense and efficiency. Our recent white paper on data valuation may also help you find ways to demonstrate your impact.

We also believe every organization has room to improve its use of data—from more effective governance to more innovative data analysis to identify new ways of thinking and working and new revenue streams.

This is part of the reason why PwC itself more than doubled the number of chief data officers in its global network of firms over the last year: we believe it’s vital, in this era of increasing complexity and information overload, to have someone at C-suite level who’s focused on getting the data foundations as strong as possible as we continue to seek new and better ways to solve the world’s most important problems.

Author profiles:

  • Rebecca Chandler advises clients on data and analytics transformation for PwC. Based in London, she is a senior manager with PwC UK.
  • Marcus Hartmann is the chief data officer for PwC Germany and Europe. Based in Frankfurt, he is a partner with PwC Germany.
  • Tatiana Kulminskaya is a member of the office of the CDO at PwC Germany. Based in Frankfurt, she is a senior associate with PwC Germany.
  • Matthias Schlemmer works with clients in the retail consumer sectors on business strategy and technology for Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business. Based in Vienna, he is a director with PwC Strategy& Austria.
  • Andy Wisnia works with clients on managing data as a strategic asset for Strategy&. Based in London, he is a partner with PwC UK.



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