Lessons from IBM’s Chief Data Officer

Inderpal Bhandari joined IBM last December as the company’s first global chief data officer (CDO). My only question is, What took IBM so long?

The CDO position is a novelty for the 105-year-old-organization but also a natural since IBM sells, supports, and itself relies on data acquisition, management, and analysis capabilities. Only last week, the company unveiled the Watson Data Platform. Contrast with five years ago, when Marc Andreessen famously declared “software is eating the world.” Today, with the ascendance of machine learning, social, and the Internet of Things — each a Watson element and each an IBM CDO concern — data is eating software.

Inderpal Bhandari (second from right) in a Chief Data Officer roundtable discussion at the 2016 World of Watson conference
Inderpal Bhandari (second from right) in a Chief Data Officer roundtable discussion at the 2016 World of Watson conference

The IBM post is Bhandari’s fourth chief data officer (CDO) appointment, as he explained during a roundtable discussion with industry analysts at the recent World of Watson conference. (Disclosure: IBM covered the cost of my conference ticket and hotel stay.) Bhandari oversees a Global Chief Data Office whose value proposition is “data-driven enablement… to become a cognitive business capable of deriving and acting rapidly on cognitive insights from massive, structured and unstructured, internal and external datasets.”

Bhandari explained bluntly: “How does IBM plan to make money? Cognition. So the mission is to use data to enable cognition within IBM, strategically.”

Cognition? For IBM, that’s the ability to automate and augment human ability to connect, communicate, learn, and collaborate. The more data, the better.

Bhandari outlined four pillars to his work as CDO:

  1. Data science and machine learning.
  2. Data and information governance.
  3. Integration within the company’s workflow.
  4. Support for the chief data officers of the business units.
IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, seen center stage at the 2016 World of Watson conference
IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, on the big screen at the 2016 World of Watson conference

These pillars are very much consistent with IBM’s recent bet-the-company realignment as a provider of cognitive, cloud solutions, per CEO Ginni Rometty’s World of Watson (WOW) keynote. IBM claimed 17,000 WOW attendance and booked Las Vegas’s T-Mobile arena in order to seat all who wished to attend. Rometty — calling guests to center stage who included GM CEO Mary Barra, Teva Pharmaceuticals Chairman Yitzhak Peterburg, and U.S. Secretary of Education John King — didn’t disappoint, positioning Watson as a technology, platform, and brand serving a broad set of industry needs, integrated into a spectrum of customer and partner products and systems.

Bhandari’s explanation of the CDO mission, by contrast, indicated an inward-facing function. His description of his task implies alignment of R&D, product, staff, and sales and marketing around a data-centric platform. The purview covers exogenous data including data harvested from social and online sources as well as company-internal data originating in operational systems, even sales and personnel. The commitment is collaborative and erases organizations boundaries. The alignment is a realignment.

Bhandari said that his office was created as an outcome of an IBM-hosted CDO summit. The brief includes thought leadership, solution showcasing, and peer-to-peer evangelism. Peer roles include data scientists, business analysts, and subject-matter experts. All make use of intelligent systems that augment the capabilities of the data analyst.

It’s worth noting that IBM has published a Chief Data Officer playbook, synthesizing findings and presenting recommendations from a 2015 study conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value. The playbook quotes Bhandari:

If you’re solving business problems, creating value, and continually gaining additional insight to improve, you’re probably succeeding (as a Chief Data Officer). But take the long view: implementing a transformation takes time. Don’t force it. You’re altering the way people look at data. That doesn’t happen overnight.

This guidance is valuable and hints at the on-going goal, whether the role is inward-facing like IBM CDO Inderpal Bhandari’s, or providing a platform for innovation like IBM Watson’s, or intended to better serve businesses and the public like GM’s, Teva’s, and governments’. The goal is transformation, via realignment around data-centered processes, to put the business problem and the consumer need first.


Here: IBM Chief Data Officer Inderpal Bhandari presents a “First look: The data roadmap for IBM’s first-ever CDO.”

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