Q&A: The Role of the Chief Data Officer and the Rise of ‘Analytics-as-a-Service’

We spoke to Allison Sagraves, Chief Data Officer at M&T Bank, to discuss how the CDO role is changing, and the professional trials and tribulations she faces in the banking sector.

allison sagraves chief data officer

Since the emergence of the chief data officer (CDO) role, corporations have gained a clearer picture of the value of their data, but have not always utilized their CDOs to their full potential.

Today, the role is becoming a vital component in business, as CDOs incorporate business strategy and culture change into their ever-expanding skill sets, which is taking data governance to a whole new level.

Meet Allison in person at Sourcing Decisions, March 2nd in Toronto.

With more than 25 years’ experience in financial services and consulting, Allison Sagraves is Chief Data Officer at M&T Bank in Buffalo, New York. Prior to joining M&T, she worked for Barclays Bank, American Express, Deloitte, and previously served as a member of The White House staff.

Data has become Ms. Sagraves’ life, both professionally and privately, so she’s been a key influence on these institutions’ decisions to walk a more strategic path based on their data. We asked her about how the CDO role is changing, and the professional trials and tribulations she faces in the banking sector.

Nearshore Americas: The Chief Data Officer (CDO) position has become an increasingly important role in recent years, especially in the banking sector, but how do you perceive your own responsibilities in the role?

allison sagraves chief data officer M&T bankAllison Sagraves: The CDO role is evolving from a primary focus on data governance to becoming more of a data evangelist, leader of data quality and stewardship, and an innovator who champions the use of data to support the business through the use of advanced analytics. Given that this position is evolving, most CDOs in banking have responsibilities that reflect where their companies are on the data maturity spectrum.

Risk and regulatory requirements were the impetus for most financial institutions to introduce the CDO role, with an initial emphasis on establishing enterprise data governance frameworks and working with technology and the business to build out the supporting technical infrastructure. Actually, a lot of the activities and investments that were originally required for regulatory purposes have led to us building some great assets that can be deployed for efficiency and to help better understand our customers’ preferences. We now have a much better view of our customers, with full views of customer accounts and relationships.

The challenge that banks have always had is the back-end technology being siloed by product – loans on one system, deposits on another, and mortgages on another, for example. This proliferation of siloed legacy systems has made it hard for banks to aggregate data into a 360 degree view of the customer, which became an essential thing to do for BSA (Bank Secrecy Act), anti-money laundering, and Know Your Customer.

As we build out our central data environment and retire some of our legacy assets we can gain a variety of efficiencies, so there are a lot of upsides to these activities that are happening in the data space, both for the bank and its customers.

Nearshore Americas: How far have CDOs come along in terms of achieving buy-in across the banking organization? Do you need to count on the broad reach of the bank to make its data more effective?

Allison Sagraves: A significant piece of the role, which has not fully been recognized across the board in the industry, is the importance of change management. A lot of my job is spent listening to the business and its challenges with data, educating people on how their role in being stewards of data can lead to improved performance, helping develop solutions and breaking down silos, and demonstrating the business value of improving the data environment.

It has been said that data is storytelling, so people who are good at communicating in business terms, understand how businesses use data, and can convince others of the business value that better data quality can bring. Communication and collaboration are essential. In the end, it comes down to culture change, so you have to talk more about why this benefits the business.

Nearshore Americas: What would you say is the hardest part about your job?

Allison Sagraves: By definition, culture change is difficult. Furthermore, bank infrastructures are complicated, so this work is meticulous and takes time and patience. You have to keep the momentum going because it’s a multi-year journey, which means you have to keep people interested and engaged. Most CDOs chair some kind of cross-functional committee of business executives, so they need to develop a strategy that delivers business value across the way to sustain interest, as there is generally and end-state in mind, but you can’t wait until you get to that end-state to deliver wins to the business.

It’s all about achieving wins along the way, making it relevant, and “de-teching” it. Make it about what’s in it for the bank and its customers, not so much about the data, per se. The most successful meetings that I have are when business leaders themselves tell stories about how improved data quality solved a business problem and created measurable value. They then share that with their peers, which holds a lot more credibility than if the CDO alone were to communicate it. There is a multiplier effect when my business partners talk about their success. This gives CDOs the ability to influence behaviors around the organization. I really like working with people in the business to help find ways to improve the organization by having good data.

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Nearshore Americas: New data management technologies are hitting the market daily, so how do you decide which Big Data platforms and data integration tools are worth investing in?

Allison Sagraves: In my role, I’m more in charge of data governance and data strategy, so we rely on technology partners for this. There are so many technologies out there that it’s important to find technologies that have been proven, have been used, and demonstrated value in other arenas. It becomes pretty difficult because there are so many players out there. I get called every single day by multiple vendors; it’s almost an unmanageable task to be aware of every possible tool on the market. The hundreds of vendors in many different spaces are likely struggling to get the ear of decision makers, because the amount of competition is just breath-taking.

Nearshore Americas: How are automation and cloud platforms affecting the industry, particularly in the use of data?

Allison Sagraves: There’s a lot of hype in this space, so it’s hard to know what banks are really doing with big data, data in the cloud, etc. I talk to peers who are in pilot phases; some of the biggest banks are further along in their maturity in terms of having data scientists solving tangible business insights, using advanced analytics with new technologies and tools. Having said that, there is a talent war in terms of data scientists, even debates over what a data scientist is, so this shortage of talent is creating an interesting potential strategy with analytics-as-a-service, where banks can get a jump in this space by partnering with firms that offer bundled services.

With analytics-as-a-service, there are providers who can bring together data scientists, tools and technologies, and models to mine your data, and then accelerate the journey from data governance to data insight. As an industry, I think we’re still in the early partnership phase when it comes to analytics. There are other industries – the technology pure-plays, logistics companies, consumer goods – that are more mature in this space, because financial services have been focused so much on defense for the past few years.

I believe in constant learning and curiosity in this space because there is so much change. There is always value to be gained in understanding who’s out there in the marketplace, what kind of tools they have, the talent they possess, and then benchmarking our own capabilities against the market. Most companies want to have core capabilities on staff, so modelling and analytics is performed across a lot of core bank functions, such as portfolio analytics, risk and compliance, and balance sheet optimization, which require fairly sophisticated analytics.

This is a very exciting time in the data space as banks begin realizing the value of the investments they have made in defense and start to leverage these investments and capabilities to generate new sources of value in offense. Those who get this right, in my opinion, will be those who emerge as winners.

Allison is joining other notable speakers at our upcoming event, Sourcing Decisions 2017. For more information, click here.

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