The journey of a chief data officer and the culture the role embodies

The role of the chief data officer (CDO) is developing rapidly. In 2014, there were 400 CDOs around the world, according to analyst firm Gartner. In the year that followed, that number hit 1,000 – and by 2019 Gartner predicts 90% of organisations will have one.

For such a senior role to grow in prevalence so quickly is very rare. And the result is a situation where CDOs not only have to carve out a definition for their role, but they also have to justify its creation.

It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride. Many have questioned the need for CDOs, while others have pitted them against other leaders in the organisation – mainly CIOs and the traditional IT department.

Brian Bissett, CDO at insurance firm XL Catlin, recognises these challenges more than anyone. And he walked away as ‘Best in Class’ in the corporate category at February’s Data 50 Awards because of the way he has faced them.

Bissett’s journey to becoming a CDO is one example of how the role has naturally evolved to serve individual business needs. Originally group chief actuary at Catlin – which was acquired by XL in May 2015 – he was dependent on a wide range of data from across the company to deliver key differentiating processes for the business, including pricing and reserving for claims.

The outcomes of these processes are a major factor in the financial success of the company, and the reserving numbers are the subject of auditor and regulatory scrutiny.

The Murky World of Data Management

In his quest to improve the quality and efficiency of these processes, and their outcomes, Bissett found himself dragged into the murky world of data management. Catlin recognised a clear need for a CDO, and despite a lack of technical background, Bissett was the obvious man for the job.

Immediately, he set about transforming the company-wide attitude towards data and promoting a culture that embodied its importance. By the time of Catlin’s acquisition, it had an industry-leading data management function whose value easily convinced XL’s leadership team to appoint Bissett as CDO of the newly combined enterprise.

‘It was a pain and an experience, with constant frustration,’ Bissett tells Information Age, ‘not just for me, but for many of the people I’ve worked with – about the inconsistencies being seen in various reports and presentations delivered through to our leadership team.

‘It also struck people as very much an awful lot of wasted effort – and in some cases duplicated effort – when they couldn’t access consistent data on an agreed basis. So part of the drive for the role I’m doing really came about as a reaction to the frustration people felt when essentially they couldn’t trust the data that was being put in front of them.’

At XL Catlin, Bissett has a broad remit to improve and control all aspects of data across the company, and ensure that it is recognised as a critical corporate asset. The overall aim of his team, which is 100-strong, is to help the company improve its profitability by enabling data-driven insights and improving efficiencies.

A key component of his team’s success has been the ‘data is king’ initiative, driven by a clearly defined data policy and information management strategy that outlines the vision, objectives, strategy, principles and policy by which the organisation should operate.

He is adamant, however, that his role – and his team – should be seen as ‘absolutely separate’ to the IT department at XL Catlin. ‘I wouldn’t do the role if I was part of the IT department,’ he says.

‘Most IT people that I encounter are interested in the technology, and very few of them actually engage with anyone around the business to tell them anything insightful about what’s going on in their business.

‘If you contrast that with people involved on the data side, we’re forever trying to understand more about what the data means and how that can have an impact on the business we are active in.’

The approach taken by Bissett is highly collaborative – success will not be achieved if only those in his team were to care about data. He invests a significant amount of time marketing information management and building partnerships with IT, finance and business functions.

Sense of empowerment

Ultimately, his aim is to empower everyone at XL Catlin to truly own their data, with the CDO providing guidance, support and specialist skills in data science.

Key to achieving that data culture was getting buy-in right from the top of the organisation. And Bissett achieved that in his first one-to-one with XL Catlin CEO Michael McGavick.

‘I basically asked him for his assistance in trying to instil a culture of data across the whole company,’ Bissett says. ‘We talked about the strategic benefits of having good data for the company, and the analysis that can come out of that.

‘Hiring somebody into the role of a chief data officer doesn’t make your data better overnight, but what you can do if you instil that culture is get everybody in the whole company playing a part in trying to improve data, which is a very powerful thing when it all comes together.’

After the CEO, Bissett then engaged with the leadership team – XL Catlin’s band of executives that lead the key functions across the company.

‘It became evident to me that there were a number of them who were more interested in data-related things than others, so I set up a data board with those key people and I interact with them to try to understand and suggest strategic ways forward for them with data.’

Bissett’s apprenticeship to becoming CDO was to transform the product hierarchy at Catlin, introducing a new level and retiring duplicates, removing inconsistencies and standardising.

A gradual, phased implementation instigated change embedded in other projects to minimise the impact on IT and business functions. The change improved the understanding of financial performance and removed manual processes across the business to analyse numbers and remove inconsistencies and anomalies.

Currently, Bissett’s innovation focus is on being able to reduce the time taken to combine disparate data sets in order for new business insights to be gained. Trials are being undertaken with data virtualisation technologies to prove whether they deliver the time savings claimed.

Bissett also champions strategic analytics, and has delivered predictive pricing models that are now embedded as a key component of the insurance quotation process and are boosting profits through more accurate pricing.

‘It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data,’ Sherlock Homes told Dr Watson. Avoiding that mistake, Bissett says, continues to reinforce the huge value that a CDO and data management team has brought to XL Catlin.

Having a CDO and data management team also pushes an agenda on consistency, which has been a very important factor in the integration of XL and Catlin.

‘We had two insurance companies coming together, and overnight people wanted to see data on a combined basis across the newly formed company,’ says Bissett. Bringing standardisation and consistency to that process – along with a strong culture of data governance – has more than justified the creation of a CDO role.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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