Ram Kumar has been known as a data czar by many in his industry for more than two decades. In his role as Chief Data and Analytics Officer (CDAO) at Cigna International Markets, he is responsible for overseeing data strategy in over 30 countries across the Americas and APAC regions. Working closely with business, technology, privacy, compliance and HR leaders, Kumar aims to drive data utilization and promote a culture that values data, always maintaining the objective of generating business value.
He recently discussed his impressive career, the key qualities of a successful CDAO, challenges in establishing a cohesive data culture and the importance of implementing effective data literacy programs with Ben Blanquera, VP-Evangelist and Senior Architect at Rackspace Technology and CDO Magazine Global Editorial Board Member.
CDO Field Guide takeaways:
- How does a CDAO encourage change? Make sure the firm treats data as a strategic and critical asset.
- Data-driven culture starts at the (very) top. Managers should set an expectation that decisions must be anchored in data.
- The importance of data quality. Maintaining high-quality datasets allows organizations to make informed decisions that will offer returns for the business.
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According to Kumar, one of the top priorities for a CDAO is having a deep understanding of the business and its strategic priorities. The CDAO must focus on taking the business through the journey of creating value out of data in a “considered” manner to support contributable strategic priorities.
Kumar says creating business value from data is a two-way street. He suggests data analytics teams should create an “insights” dashboard and operationalize data insights to address benefits. “Both are required to create value out of data, and that is why the CDAO must create a culture and environment where the business and the data analytics team — with the support of partners such as IT — work together right from conceptualization to operationalization of data analytics use cases,” he adds.
Another key responsibility of the CDAO is encouraging a comprehensive technology strategy and framework for data lifecycle management and governance. He emphasizes that a solid understanding of data architecture, data literacy, risk management, metadata, and master data issues is critical.
“This requires investment, and this is where data literacy plays a vital role in educating the business and senior executives about data lifecycle management and data-driven operations, and why and how both are required to create data-driven value,” Kumar explains.
How To Foster Data Culture?
In Kumar’s 25-plus years of experience in the field, he cites creating a data culture in an organization as the biggest challenge. He points to the lack of understanding and appreciation that data is a strategic and competitive asset — the lifeblood of an organization at the C-suite level. Focus has often been given to people, processes, and technology at the expense of data, Kumar says.
Driving investment in data initiatives can be a major challenge in this environment. It has been Kumar's experience that data projects like data quality and data governance are often the first targets for budget cuts, even if a budget has been allocated for those projects.
“You can't touch them like technology. Processes, you can feel and see. But data is like the blood in your body. You don't think about it every day, Kumar adds. “So, people really didn't get it. It was very tough to get a budget for data initiatives.”
According to Kumar, senior executives needed to understand and appreciate how to create data-driven business value. They didn't understand it, and the industry wasn't ready for that.
Data Literacy and the Adoption of Key Performance Indicators (KPI)
As businesses have become increasingly digital and data-driven, it’s critical the CDAO ensures that data literacy efforts are successful. Kumar says he started working on such data literacy programs as early as 1999. Today, data literacy programs are a critical part of every employee's annual training program, much like enterprise training programs, such as the code of ethics, data security, or anti-bribery.
Kumar notes that, increasingly, organizations are putting data at the center. “All the processes — including technology — and organization structure are transformed to be aligned around data. CEOs have recognized the value of data as the lifeblood of organizations,” he says.
As a result of data literacy programs, Kumar continues, data has emerged as a key performance indicator in enterprises' risk profiles. The KPI is a measurable value that demonstrates how effectively a company achieves key business objectives. Organizations use KPIs to evaluate their progress and success in reaching targets. “How many enterprises have data as the key KPI in their risk profile? They talk about insurance risk, credit risk, and financial risk. They all center around data, but there is no data risk around things like data quality,” says Kumar.
He explains that Cigna introduced a data quality by design culture that rewards individuals and departments for data quality. Data discount programs were introduced to partners and customers. Customers who provided good data were compensated with discounted premiums. Agents and brokers who delivered good data had increased commissions. “So, the benefits of data-driven value were measured and recorded as part of P&L,” Kumar says.
Both the CDAO’s role and the importance of data are increasing daily. By advocating for data and data excellence as essential organizational priorities, the CDAO has a critical role in driving the business forward and providing guidance to others in the C-suite. Increasingly, organizations will need to rely on the CDAO to bridge the gap between data and business outcomes if they want to remain competitive.
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About the Authors
VP - Evangelist and Senior Architect
Ben is VP-Evangelist and Senior Architect with Rackspace Technology. He works with enterprises, architecting solutions to enable them to drive business outcomes through thriving in a multicloud world. He is a 35-year veteran in multiple industries including health care, manufacturing, and technology consulting. Prior to Rackspace, Ben was with Covail, a leading-edge provider of AI/ML and cybersecurity services to Fortune 1000 clients. At Covail, Ben was VP of Delivery and transitioned to VP of Revenue and Client Success. A recognized technology leader, Ben was named a Premier 100 leader by Computerworld. Outside of work, he loves to travel, ride his bike, and spend time with his wife and four daughters. He is an active organizer in the tech community and curates the Central Ohio CIO forum (150+ CIOs) and founded Techlife Columbus. Ben also serves on the Pitch Advisory Board for South by Southwest and the Editorial Board for CDO Magazine.Read more about Ben Blanquera