Has the CIO lost Big Data?


An interesting phenomenon has been occurring in corporate IT. In an area where CIOs once ruled the roost for anything and everything regarding technology, and large, monolithic IT organizations were the norm, technology has increasingly become embedded in business units, and budgets and initiative ownership is shifting away from the CIO and toward line of business ownership.

With Big Data in particular, a confluence of factors is moving what has been a traditionally technical activity-managing and reporting on data-away from the most technically oriented department in the organization. How should CIOs deal with this shift?

The perfect storm

While this shift was evident in some organizations decades ago, several new technologies have accelerated it and made it more prevalent. Cloud computing is the most obvious example, allowing anyone with a credit card to provision IT services that once would have been impossible without an IT department, technical project teams, and months of hard work.

The second factor pulling Big Data away from traditional IT organizations is the specialized skillsets required to perform Big Data analytics. On the technical front, much of the data used in Big Data are unstructured and require new database technology that’s unfamiliar to those who have spent careers with standard relational databases. While this technical challenge is not insurmountable, the Data Scientists who craft the queries and analytics behind successful Big Data are simply not a role present or readily learned at most companies.

Much of the demand for Big Data analytics is coming from marketing, a potent business function that’s often well funded and familiar with dealing with external service providers, and also one with a very low tolerance for long initiatives. Combine these three factors with a cadre of large and small consulting shops that are targeting CMOs rather than CIOs when selling Big Data, and it’s easy to envision a scenario where IT is the last to hear about a Big Data project, getting a call only when data are needed from an internal system.

Run up the white flag?

So, should CIOs cede the Big Data battle and let CMOs take charge of these types of initiatives? After all, there is an abundance of recent precedents for Marketing taking over technically oriented initiatives, from the early days of the web, to marketing automation, to social media. While it may be tempting to let Big Data slip from IT’s fingertips, Big Data will be a cornerstone of future enterprise technology, and is an area where the CIO can add demonstrable value.

While it’s unlikely IT can wrest total control of Big Data away from organizations like Marketing and Sales, IT brings several competencies to the table. The most obvious and important is that IT usually “owns” most of an organization’s internal data. These data may be readily available in well-curated Data Warehouses or Business Intelligence applications, or scattered about a variety of legacy platforms waiting to be unlocked by an IT-driven data cleansing effort.

Furthermore, IT brings a strong knowledge of technology and vendor relationships to the table. While Big Data is certainly not all about technology, the hype surrounding the technology has everyone from ad agencies to mid-market, commodity IT shops screaming about their Big Data capabilities. IT can bring some sanity to these discussions and help other business units evaluate the technical capabilities of potential partners, bringing some sense to overinflated claims.

Finally, the CIO can ensure Big Data efforts offer benefits to multiple business units. Rather than launching a marketing-specific Big Data effort, IT can leverage its knowledge of the entire organization to ensure Big Data initiatives serve the larger organization, not a narrow niche.

While looking to partner and play more of a background role in initiatives like Big Data may seem unsavory at first, technology is evolving away from technology-centric, internally-driven projects. CIOs who can get ahead of this shift and present IT as a competent, knowledgeable, trusted advisor rather than a parochial “department of no” will evolve and grow more important to an organization, rather than gradually fade away.