UPDATED 12:17 EST / FEBRUARY 22 2017

Ursula Cottone, CDO, Citizens Bank BIG DATA

This chief data officer is breaking down silos, one at a time

Ursula Cottone has no formal background in technology. Over the course of a nearly 20-year banking career, she has worked in just about every area of the business, including including branch management, lending, commercial banking, investments and large-scale technical projects. Just not information technology.

But in her role as chief data officer at Citizens Financial Group, Inc. — better known as Citizens Bank – that experience gap has actually been an advantage. Like many CDOs, she has found that the toughest job isn’t changing technology but attitudes. “Silos get created around type of data,” Cottone said. “Bringing those silos together to think from a customer perspective has always been a challenge.”

To break down barriers, Cottone has focused on “understanding the culture and learning what the pain points are. Helping people with pain is a great way to break down silos,” she said.

And she’s seeing success. One marketing analytics project combines all the data the bank has about individual consumer customers into a single view. The bank then invites those customers in to review their accounts and recommend the best products and services for their needs. “That’s been a big win for us,” Cottone said.

Citizens Bank isn’t alone in working to overcome organizational resistance to new practices driven by data. NewVantage Partners LLC, which specializes in helping enterprises implement big data initiatives, has seen this scenario repeatedly, said Chief Executive Randy Bean, who joined Cottone for a recent interview on theCUBE, SiliconAngle Media’s mobile live-streaming studio. “We assume that technology is the primary challenge, but organizational alignment, business alignment and business process change are the biggest obstacles” to becoming a data-driven organization, he said.

Recognizing data’s value

The rise of the CDO has generated considerable interest as organizations increasingly consider data to be their most prized asset. The number of CDOs in the Fortune 500 has grown from a handful five years ago to more than 300 today. But there is little commonality in the way the position is defined, its place in the reporting structure or the skills that are necessary for success.

For example, the CDO role at Citizens Bank is on a peer level with the chief information officer, with both executives reporting into the chief operating officer. That’s just fine with Ursula Cottone. “Reporting to the COO is perfect. It gives you an enterprise-wide view,” she said.

When NewVantage asked big data practitioners for their views on reporting structure for its fifth annual Big Data Executive Survey, the responses were all over the map. More than a third of respondents said the position should report directly to the CEO, while 18 percent favored the COO and only 7 percent saw the job as a CIO report. “There seems to be consensus that reporting to a high level in the organization that oversees many domains is the best fit for the chief data officer,” Bean said.

That’s particularly important in a bank, which has multiple lines of business and the tendency to deposit data into silos. Part of Cottone’s role is to evangelize the message that “Data is not a project; it’s a way of life,” she said. “Understanding how data is needed for operating retail branches, how it’s used in commercial banking, what it means for operations, all of those components are important.”

That’s an area in which the CDO provides unique value through a broad business background. “Leaving data decisions to the technology team is not the right answer,” Cottone said. “The business has to be strongly engaged, and that’s the role my team plays.”

In fact, the technology people who process data at Citizens don’t even report into the CDO. Cottone’s team is focused on governance, stewardship, data quality, metadata and business definitions. The overriding goal: “We want to make access to data much easier for folks internally,” she said.

Work in progress

At many organizations, the CDO role has evolved as data governance has matured. CDOs may have initially busied themselves finding and harmonizing all the data in the organization, but now they’re shifting their attention to more strategic areas. More than half of the companies NewVantage surveyed said the CDO position is currently mostly defensive, but most see the role becoming more innovation-focused over time. “Realizing cost savings by reducing expenses is the low-hanging fruit,” Bean said.

Cottone said the opportunity to rethink the business is one of the most exciting dimensions of her job. “Data can change the customer experience, whether it’s delivering it via mobile app, on the web and even how our people in the branch interact with customers,” she said. “As we think to the future, offering products and services in whatever channel customers choose to touch us will all come from a data underpinning.”

Meanwhile, there’s also the threat of disruption from forces like crowdfunding and bitcoin to deal with. But Cottone said bring on the challengers. “No matter the types of disruptive forces are out there, we still have the customers,” she said. Rather than fighting new technology, smart financial services companies are embracing it. “Partnering to enhance the customer experience is fantastic,” she said of the disruptive upstarts. “They don’t have the customers and we don’t have the technology.”

Watch the full video interview:

Photo by SiliconANGLE

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