What is a chief analytics officer? The exec who turns data into decisions

What is a chief analytics officer? The exec who turns data into decisionsThe chief analytics officer (CAO) heads up a company’s data analytics operations, transforming data into business value, and drives data-related business change. The role is often viewed as interchangeable with that of the chief data officer. For Gartner’s recent report on “The State of the Office of the ‘Chief Data Officer,’” the company surveyed 180 chief data officers and chief analytics officers, making no distinction between the titles.

“The word ‘analytics’ is misunderstood,” explained Andrew White, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. Different organizations mean different things by it, and some use phrases like “business intelligence” or “knowledge management” instead, he said. As a result, “the chief analytics officer can come from two places. Either the role is interchangeable with the chief data officer or else the company wants an analytic strategy function that provides reports to everyone. In some companies that’s a function of the chief data officer, in others it might be a separate body.” In the long run, he predicted, “the titles will all roll up into chief data officer.”

Some believe that, although managing data and leading data analysis are two different functions, they should both belong to the same person. “If you look at the evolution of the titles, most leaders in analytics and data want to own both the data strategy and also analytics,” said Guy Gomis, partner at the recruiting company BrainWorks. “Because of that interest and because it makes sense, most smart companies are combining the two functions into one.”

But others argued that there’s a subtle but important difference between a chief data and a chief analytics officer, and that difference has to do with transforming data into measurable business benefits. “I think ‘analytics’ better describes the challenge to the organization than ‘data,’” said Colin Zima, chief analytics officer at data analytics platform Looker. “I prefer to be chief analytics officer rather than chief data officer,” he added.

The chief analytics officer role and responsibilities

Naming a chief analytics officer sends a powerful signal to the entire organization about the importance of data analytics. Chris Mazzei had been at consulting giant EY for almost 20 years before becoming the company’s first chief analytics officer in 2014.

“EY was in the process of launching a new global strategy,” he said. “We had a new chair and a new CEO. It was more and more obvious to the leadership team how important data and analytics were going to be to the future and also how they were already starting to affect all our existing businesses.”

At the time, he said, many of EY’s business leaders were using data in various ways, but “they weren’t joined up in a way we thought made sense,” he said. “We didn’t have a high degree of confidence that we could move as fast as we wanted to.” Although most analytics functions still take place within EY’s business units, Mazzei now leads a global team charged with providing analytics tools throughout EY and helping to accelerate the movement toward a more analytics-driven company.

Bring analytics into your business decision-making and it will quickly prove its own worth, he added. For example, a private equity company that was planning to buy a consumer food business hired EY to do due diligence before the deal was finalized. Because Mazzei and his team believe social media analysis can add valuable insights to that process, the company deployed two teams, one doing a traditional financial analysis, the other doing a social media analysis as well.

The social media analysis turned up a big problem. “We saw in a couple of categories there was starting to be increasingly negative sentiment around the taste of some products,” Mazzei said. “We dug into it a little, and it turned out they had a major quality issue at a couple of their plants. That led the private equity company not to do the deal, and we would never have found that in a traditional financial due diligence because it hadn’t worked its way into the financial results yet.”