Monday, 28 April 2014

Chief digital officers step into CIOs’ shoes

A buzz has building up around the emergence of the chief digital officer (CDO) in large organisations. It’s strong enough for communities such as the US based Chief Digital Officer Club to have emerged, and to have prompted organisations to ask what the role involves and what it can do for their prospects.

The second is easier to answer: it should provide a competitive edge as the world moves towards carrying out most of its business digitally. The first is more difficult as the role is still emerging and precise definitions vary; but in general it’s about shaking up the business to ensure that its IT infrastructure and information management are lean, mean and properly aligned to raise the game in operations and dealing with customers.

Sound familiar? A few years ago people were talking about the chief information officers (CIO) as the hot new job in similar terms.

Commentators are making a distinction between the roles of CDO and CIO, which generally refer to the latter as a head of technology and the former as someone who knows the technology but also ‘gets’ the whole business and understands its market. Again, this is close to how people were talking about the CIO role a few years ago, but reflects the fact that in many organisations it has now been shoved back into a technology box. There are CIOs who are up there at board level, helping to shape the strategy of a business and with the authority to make a difference, but plenty are confined to jobs that are much closer to the traditional head of IT.

This came up at a recent BCS Digital Leaders’ Summit, with talk about the fact that, after the aspirations of the mid 2000s, many CIOs haven’t got close to the boardroom. A background in IT, for all the strengths it brings, was almost seen as a disadvantage. Some blame was attached to a traditional failing of IT professionals in keeping their minds on the technology, and not getting to grips with the broader business issues or learning the language of the boardroom. But it can work with the other way, with board members and senior managers too keen to see a techy as no more than a techy. Whatever the reasons, it has left a gap that some are looking to CDOs to fill.

They may well fill it in some organisations, but in the space of 10 years will they go the same way as the CIO? The fact that a CDO needs to know the technology means a lot of candidates will come from an IT background, but this could make those at the top quick to place them in the same techy box.

Or can CIOs change, adding a few more skills to take on the CDO role? Maybe, but it won’t just be about skills, but a more assertive approach and different attitudes from other C-suite leaders.

Then there’s always the possibility that in a few years the gap will still be unfilled and someone will invent a new title for the same job. I hope not.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

What’s HMRC’s purpose in tax data sale?

The UK government has managed to wave another red rag to privacy bulls with the acknowledgement that it’s looking at plans to sell aggregated and anonymised tax data to the private sector. This would have stirred up protests by itself, but after the recent controversy over health records it has activists worried that the government has forgotten the sensitivities over personal data that it trumpeted in the run-up to the 2010 election.

There has been a long running argument over whether measures to anonymise data can be 100% effective, and the risk judgement is going to be determined by how much damage can be done by the data getting into the wrong hands against the potential good in making it available. Which prompts the thought, against my ususal instincts, that it could be more dubious to sell off data on tax affairs than healthcare.

Even if you’re militant about privacy, it’s hard to deny that there is a potential good in allowing researchers access to data sets. It gives them more information, a clearer view of the patterns in health issues and a better chance of finding solutions to problems in public healthcare. It’s a big positive to place against any risk that some of the data could be de-anonymised and misused.

Are there similar benefits in placing tax data up for sale? I’m sure that some private companies would find it valuable, but where’s the public good? So far the Treasury has been vague about what any research and analysis could achieve, and it leaves the thought that the idea is being floated mainly to raise revenue.
That might win over some bean counters in Whitehall, but it will make it harder sell outside; a little more money in the public coffers is a short term gain that doesn’t justify the privacy risk as convincingly as long term improvements in healthcare.

This may come to nothing – governments often let a proposal leak out to test reactions then quietly drop the idea – but it suggests there’s an increasing sentiment in Whitehall towards making more anonymised data available to third parties. And as the private sector shows more of what it can achieve with big data, ministers will be tempted to go along with the sentiment. That should keep the privacy activists busy for years to come.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See He is the author of  a paper on Privacy v Intelligence for the Chartered Institute for IT, available through BCS Enterprise.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Three questions for the UK public about Scottish independence

With less than six months to go to the referendum on Scottish independence, the arguments are getting louder and increasingly bad tempered.

Over the past few weeks Alex Salmond and his Nationalist colleagues have made a sustained effort to frame their opponents’ arguments as those of an overbearing elite who are lying about their intentions in effort to scare Scottish voters away from independence. Yes, most of it surrounds the prospects of a currency union with the rest of the UK, although I’m sure questions of EU membership, defence policy and border controls are also going to stir up some sound and fury in months ahead.

What the Nationalists are not keen on anyone talking about is how the public in the rest of the UK feels about these issues. It suits their case to define independence in terms of Scots asserting themselves against a governing class from privileged backgrounds, rather than detaching themselves from the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I suspect that plenty of Scots would at least take into account the opinions of their UK compatriots. Scotland has retained its own legal and education systems, and there are some cultural differences, but we have a lot more in common. We share an economy and transport infrastructure, study at each other’s universities, generally watch the same TV programmes, listen to the same music and laugh at the same jokes.

Most importantly, a lot of Scots live in England, and a smaller but significant number of English people live in Scotland, with Welsh and Northern Irish also settling across the borders. It’s everyday stuff that has kept us together, and in the event of independence some of this is going to change, and this will affect attitudes on both sides of the border.

One thing the Scots deserve in advance of the vote is clarity around what the people in the rest of the UK, not just the politicians, think about independence.  Just knowing if they want them to stay would be a big issue, along with attitudes towards a couple of the factors – currency and borders – that everyone will notice.

There has been a recent Yougov poll on currency union, but the process would benefit from a large scale opinion poll across England, Wales and Northern Ireland – commissioned independently of the government – asking three questions to be answered with a simple yes, no or undecided:

1 – Do you hope that Scotland votes to remain as part of the UK in September?
2 – In the event of Scotland becoming independent, do you think it should be allowed into a currency union with the UK?
3 – In the event of Scotland becoming independent, do you think there should be a full border and regulation of movement from one side to the other?

Show people in Scotland what the rest of the UK thinks about these and they’ll go into the referendum with a clearer picture than that presented by the Nationalists.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See He also writes fiction, details on

Thursday, 10 April 2014

How much do we want algorithms to do?

Yesterday I read an engrossing piece by Luke Dormehl in Wired magazine about the prospects for analytic software in the recruitment process. The gist is that algorithms can be a lot more reliable than people in identifying the right candidate, and that it may not be long before organisations rely on technology rather than human judgement to find the right people.

The idea has an immediate appeal in promoting a more genuinely meritocratic workplace. I’m sure that most of us have been frustrated at missing the cut for a job interview when we know we fit the bill. And plenty of us have employed people who had the CV, references and came across great in the interview, but regretted the choice months later. I’ve had experience of both.

So take out those wobbly human judgements and let the algorithms take charge, and we’ll have the right people in the right jobs. Agreed? I suspect there would be more disquiet than enthusiasm.

A lot of managers won’t like it. Getting to choose who work for you is one of the big plus points of being a manager, and it would dent a lot of egos to tell them a computer is more likely to make a good choice. A lot of potential employees would feel dubious, not wanting their worthiness for a job to be assessed by a software programme. There’s a scary element in its implications for our relationship with computers.

It’s also important to remember a question that’s usually asked during recruitment: will they fit in? If you want a machine to answer that you have to combine the data on the candidate with data on their managers, colleagues, and the priorities and dynamics of the company. Will that be readily volunteered? Will it be accurate? The algorithms get more complicated, and become more vulnerable to any distortions and dishonesties. And we all know they come from both sides of the fence.

It’s part of the bigger question of how far cognitive systems can go in replacing humans, something I touched on in a recent white paper for the Chartered Institute for IT. Cognitive computing can do some things better than people, in terms of processing massive quantities of data quicker and more consistently, and can provide important insights at high speed. But they don’t think like people, making the value and moral judgements on which we often rely, and most organisations won’t want to take those judgements out of many of their processes, including recruitment.

I can see more companies using algorithms as part of their process to find new employees; but I bet there won’t be many prepared to drop those face-to-face interviews and take the decisions out of their managers’ hands.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See