The Chief Data Officer (CDO) dilemma

PwC Study 2023: Balancing governance responsibility with the need to demonstrate value

Your expert for questions

Marcus Hartmann

Marcus Hartmann
Partner, Chief Data Officer PwC Germany and Europe
Tel: +49 69 9585-3269

Is the Chief Data Officer role future proof?

This year has brought data and modelling to the forefront of conversations, spurred by a sharp interest in Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI). According to the 26th PwC CEO Survey, many companies are opting for an increased use of data and analytics technologies to enable sales growth in a difficult economic environment. It is therefore surprising to see a notable decrease in the number of Chief Data Officers (CDOs) appointed compared to previous years which raises questions for how the role could develop in the future. 

For the third time, PwC and Strategy&, PwC’s global strategy consultancy, examined the world’s 2,500 largest listed companies, with an aim to explore the prominence and significance of the CDO role and implications for organisations that are seeking to maximize the potential of their data assets.

“We are at a turning point for the adoption of AI. As a result, companies are rethinking their data strategy, which is considered a necessary foundation for AI.”

Marcus Hartmann,Chief Data Officer at PwC Germany

The study at a glance

Data front of mind

When we pair the significant developments in large language models and their interfaces with the prominence and scale of cloud technologies, it is clear that we are at an inflection point for consumer adoption of AI in day-to-day life, where data plays a key role. Our analysis of thousands of annual reports shows that data continues to rise on the companies’ agenda: the term “data” is mentioned more frequently in the annual reports of the 2,500 largest listed companies worldwide than in the previous year – on average 81 times (up 13 percent). It is often referenced in conjunction with key business topics like “cloud” and “commercial”.

Infographics: Average frequency of reference to data in annual investor reports

Number of appointed CDOs is going down

Paired with the rise in data mentions in the executive agenda it is surprising to see a reduced number of appointed CDOs, with 14 % reduction this year. Only 590 (24 %) of the 2,500 companies analysed have a Chief Data Officer, compared to 682 (27 %) companies in the study year prior. The hiring rate in the 2023 company cohort has dropped as well, with the peak hire year being 2021 (120 hires), to only 71 in 2023. 

There could be various reasons for the decline in CDOs: the hype surrounding the CDO position in recent years seems to be slowly leveling off, as many companies have now integrated the role and tasks of the position. However, in the current challenging economic environment, budget cuts are also a possible explanation, where companies may be distributing responsibility for data activities among various other roles.

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Chief Data Officer Study 2023/2024

The profile of organisations employing CDOs has shifted

It is interesting to note that the decline does not affect all regions. In Europe 34 % of the companies have appointed CDO, compared to 42 % in the 2022 top 2500 companies’ cohort. The situation is similar in North America, while the proportion of CDOs in South and Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region increased.

The analysis also shows that the profile of companies with CDOs has shifted to smaller organisations and the number of CDOs in large organisations has decreased significantly. Two thirds of CDOs currently work in companies with less than 25,000 employees.

Diverse landscape of data priorities

Data plays a pivotal role in technological advancements and innovations across a variety of business areas. The analysis revealed that data is being discussed alongside key business topics, varying from region to region. For example, in Europe greater emphasis is placed on the term “diversity” with 35 % of mentions. However, the overall data narrative in public communications continues to be defensive in nature, with companies discussing data in the context of concentrating on risk and governance topics.

Infographics: Percentage of references by analysis topic and region

The Chief Data Officer Dilemma

In many companies, innovative analytics solutions are developed within the business functions, closer to the market. CDOs are focussed on the less exciting tasks surrounding data management and data governance, which may be leading to a profession-defining dilemma to show return on investment unless they can transition to contributing more to the value creation agenda.

The detailed study results at a glance

Data continues to rise onto the executive agenda, tackling the most pressing public issues

  • References to data in annual reports have risen 13 % this year.
  • Top data topics referred to in the annual reports are “cloud”, “commercial”, “diversity” and “customer”.
  • Generative AI has thrown a  spotlight on companies’ data and AI strategies.

Yet, fewer organizations have a CDO in place

  • 24 % of companies have a CDO, reducing by 14 % this year, which contradicts companies’ public stance on data importance. 
  • Can this be explained by hype cycle completion, funding cuts or market maturity?
  • CDOs may face a profession-defining dilemma to show return on investment. 

The profile of companies with CDOs has shifted to smaller organisations

  • The number of data leaders employed in large organisations has decreased significantly. Two thirds of CDOs currently work in companies with fewer than 25,000 employees. 
  • In smaller companies with fewer than 5,000 employees, 20 percent currently have a CDO – an increase of five percentage points compared to the previous year. 
  • Various possible explanations to this trend: “hands-on” nature of work in smaller organisation and operational advantages.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution

  • Data is being discussed alongside key business topics, varying from region to region.
  • Publicly, the data narrative remains defensive, covering risk and governance, not innovative.
  • CDOs must play a role in driving local solutions with a value-driven narrative.

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Chief Data Officer Study 2023/2024

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The methodology

The Chief Data Officer Study looked at the world’s 2,500 largest publicly listed companies by market capitalization value. We analysed these companies’ corporate annual and integrated reports over a period of six years, using natural language processing and cutting-edge language models to identify topics commonly paired with the data agenda.

For the analysis, the CDO role has been defined based on seniority, role in the organization, and scope of work, rather than just the title set by the firm. Throughout this study, when we say “chief data officer”, we mean an individual who has data-focused responsibilities at the C-suite or C-minus-one level – regardless of their job title.

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Rebecca Chandler

Rebecca Chandler

Senior Manager, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 7843 371565

Tatiana Kulminskaya

Tatiana Kulminskaya

Manager, PwC Germany

Marcus Hartmann

Marcus Hartmann

Partner, Chief Data Officer, PwC Germany, PwC Europe

Tel: +49 69 9585-3269

Dr. Matthias Schlemmer

Dr. Matthias Schlemmer

Partner, Data & AI Strategy and Organization, Strategy& Austria

Andy Wisnia

Andy Wisnia

Partner, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 7764 902804