Episode 5: Helen Crooks

the data files podcast episode 5

EPISODE 5: Helen Crooks – The Data Files

The role of the CDO and impact of getting the right leadership for the right job. Helen Crooks (NED & Chair, Transforming Digital Advisory Board at the Parliamentary Digital Service) joins Barry and Tony and makes them re-think some things by offering her experience of seeing the space evolve over the last 40 years.

AI Transcription:

Helen Crooks  13:04  

I think that’s true. But the challenge then comes which we all know, which is if it is at the wrong level. And if it hasn’t got the appropriate authority or budget or scope, then it can make the role incredibly challenging, and actually almost impossible. So it takes a mature or an understanding of what the organization is actually trying to achieve and how you balance that with a CDO role to actually get the right balance.

Tony Cassin-Scott  13:36  

So this leads on to the relative data literacy skills are buried doesn’t like the term because it can quantitative, illiterate, but the evidence of understanding how data can be used for the benefit of the organization, there needs to be that on board in order to place a CDO or whatever title that’s given at the appropriate level. So it seems to me and I’d be interested in your views on this that ultimately will come down to the board members, and where they see the value in the organization.

Helen Crooks  14:05  

Yes, I’m sort of has it not hesitating from the perspective of does that mean that it needs to be understood at board level, etc. I think the challenge is one of trying to find that embryonic thing that a particular organization needs to have that is supported by that data effort to actually start with I think the vast majority of organizations now will have a recognition of the fact that their business requires data to you know, even if you’re not if you’re not a data, if you’re if your product isn’t something that’s dependent on data. You know, there’s there’s a recognition that certain elements of data are important and in need to look after. And so I know even if you don’t know what you want to do for the was about to exploit it. But you know, you need to look after it. So I’d be very surprised if there was very few companies now who don’t have a board level, some understanding, or some, you know, some executive understanding of what that data, what the importance of that data and what you want to do to look after it? And will you know, the opportunities that you might have with it? Not necessarily, will you actually want to buy into some of those opportunities, even if you know about them? Not necessarily. So it sort of then comes on to the challenge of data versus digital, and the company strategy and all those sorts of things.

Tony Cassin-Scott  15:41  

But what you’re describing there as a journey that we’re all on, I mean, if you go back five years plus, the picture is very different, wasn’t it? Yeah. So So what do you think? What made that change happen? What’s allowed that to happen?

Helen Crooks  15:56  

More practitioners who have got an understanding of data, where they come from a tech field and ethics field, a standards field, a governance, the impact of legislation. So, you know, GDPR, heightened everybody’s understanding, there’s an argument to be said that the last couple of years with the pandemic has heightened general public understanding even more. So every time now there is more general discussion about data. I think that heightens the perspective of a board, sort of like, well, what are we doing about data, it’d be interesting to do some research to find out how many of the UK company organizations don’t have somebody who they go, that’s the person that’s accountable from a data what they called a CDO or not, because not necessarily will be called the CDO, but that’s the person that’s accountable for our data,

Tony Cassin-Scott  16:50  

Is that because of legislation is in the regulatory governance has made that so? Or has it been self selecting?

Helen Crooks  16:58  

I don’t think it’s been self selecting? I don’t know. Do you agree with that, but I don’t think it’s been self selecting. I think it’s a combination of digitalization of us. You know, the whole world is just getting more digital and more data is available, people are more aware of data. I think organizations are more aware of data and the value of data because of things like this. The people are more aware of data. And the roles that are digital and data still get confused over the difference between the date of CTO and Chief Data Officer, Chief Digital Officer. And you mentioned, you know, product depends on if your products are digitally based product or not, as well. So, you know, there’s all sorts of different reasons, I don’t think it’s one thing, I think it’s a movement.

Tony Cassin-Scott  17:43  

So if we were to fast forward 10 years time, what will be the nature of this conversation today?

Barry Panayi  17:49  

Hopefully, we’d be retired on a beach by then well, not in this data dungeon.

Helen Crooks  17:56  

Definitely retired on a beach. That’s a bit tricky. If you just said to me, when I first started nearly 40 years ago, what we look like in 10 years time, I wouldn’t have been able to predict that. And then each decade, it’s changed, has it flattened out or as the changing accelerated. I think the understanding and knowledge of opportunity with data is accelerating. I think we’re still on that acceleration curve, I think the opportunity of what more could be done. From a technical perspective, I think the gaps are going to widen, I think you’re going to have people who still just do basic stuff. And the gaps are gonna go out to people who are much, much more sophisticated.

Barry Panayi  18:45  

I might go back to when you talked about the frustrations, it’s pretty well established that the tenure of CDOs aren’t the longest compare them to the CFO and CEO and CFO, maybe two, three years, I think I don’t know what the average is, is probably about that. Why do you think that is it? Is it than just a nature of the job certain tools for certain jobs? So, uh, go in and turn it around versus go in and run it or establish it? Or are there just allergic reactions in certain organizations? I mean, it seems a very low tenure for a job that is a very senior job that needs time to establish.

Helen Crooks  19:25  

I’ve got a couple of theories. I think we need to look at the data. And what why do I say that? So if the average is two or three years or so three years, it could be that there is a peak at sort of like a year and another peak at about four or five years and never your average worked out in the middle. And the reason why that peak is is because when, as I said before, if you get a CDO mismatch with an organization do people come in and go? Nah, I’m not making any headway here. I’m going after heard that and I’ve seen that a number of times, because people can come in with one expectation and then doesn’t work out. That’s one theory. The other sort of question is many CDO roles for the sorts of companies that you know, your average company, not not your big Tex, not the ones that are driven by data, but you or even your startups, but your normal average CTO was, many of them report into a board member. So CFO, COO, maybe CEO don’t know, quite often board members have got tenure. So they come in that CFO, they come in, they look, they take three, six months to establish and look at what their strategy is going to be. And they go, oh, I need to see do and then spend another three months or so six months, 12 months, finding another CEO, CTO, and it takes another sort of six months to get them out of their current contract. So it’s two years in that companies CFOs journey, they join, they define a strategy, and then the CFO comes to the end of their particular tenure. And the CEO quite often will leave with them. And I’ve seen that happen as well. So whilst I agree with you a little bit, Barry, and we are by definition, I think, you know, CDOs, we’re very passionate about what we do. We want to make a difference we get in there we define a strategy. We want people to follow us on that journey. And if we don’t get the support, if we get the support that might determine the tenure, I don’t know. But I think we need to look at the data because I think there’s no single reason for it. 

Barry Panayi  21:35  

Again, interesting point there with a lag effect of if one isn’t sitting on the board as a CDO, which many of us don’t, you’re taking the jump to join someone you may have worked with before they need to bed in they then need to recruit. And so when is a very interesting point, I can see I’ve got a chart drawing in my head, which is absolutely the wrong format for a podcast. So I want to talk about what the chart that I’ve got in my head, is it bimodal? I’m not caring, they’re not going there. Thank you very much for that one. I mean, would one want to spend 10 years as a CDO somewhere, frankly, I mean, I don’t know if I could be asked, well,

Helen Crooks  22:11  

I know some people who have been effectively or de facto CDO companies for sort of 10 years or so. And those companies actually tend to be the companies, which are the data companies. So by definition, the company is evolving, and their strategy is about changing and improving the way in which they use them new data. But it doesn’t mean to say that, you know, that’s that’s the only case. But I don’t know, I think there is there is something about the fact that with data, you need that backing, you want that journey, you want that strategy, you want that change, and then when it gets to operational, just keep it running, many of us get bored.

Tony Cassin-Scott  22:52  

I think that’s the other hypothesis, isn’t it? CDOs, a change agent. And by definition, you don’t stay have a very long tenure. For change, you make the change, and you move on. 

Helen Crooks  23:02  

But ironically,significant number of organizations who are looking for CDOs are looking for the safe pair of hands, not looking for the change agent. And what do they end up with? Well, this is where you get to the mismatch. And it’s not saying one’s right or one’s wrong. It’s just different horses for different courses from my perspective.

Tony Cassin-Scott  23:23  

So Helen, one question we ask all our guests, Barry’s answered it I’ve answered it, and I’m going to ask you the same question now. What’s the best advice you never took?

Helen Crooks  23:33  

The best advice probably that I never took was probably this is be mid to late 80s. Go to the west coast with Oracle. And I didn’t take

Tony Cassin-Scott  23:43  

those time paths. We’ll never know. We’ll know.

Barry Panayi  23:46  

Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.