Whose Data is it Anyway? The Rise of the Digital Ombudsman

This guest post comes from Adam Monago, Head of Digital Strategy at ThoughtWorks.

Marketers are collecting more and more data all the time. The question is: What are they doing with it all?

The last decade has seen an explosion of customers analytics coming from social media conversation, web search and email - businesses have needed to adapt fast to include these channels in their strategies. The rise of a new profession, digital marketing, comes amidst a lackluster track record of marketing demonstrating business value to executives; a recent McKinsey Survey had 72% of CEOs reporting that their marketing departments continued to ask for more money with no evidence of business value. At the same time, we continue to see new business models built on top of popular digital platforms and businesses rise and fall based on insights gleaned via social listening.

Most of us in the digital marketing space are inundated with analytics, reports on how analytics can help you derive more value for the business, and more analytics. There is certainly every intention to deliver value, even while there is uncertainty over "what" is valuable.

Customer data compact

With all of this focus on the 'innovation' that can come from big data, there has not been enough focus on the customer whose data has become the engine that fuels the new tech economy. In his latest work, Who Owns the Future, Jaron Lanier points out how much wealth has been created on models which count on freely provided output of consumers through social content; he goes further to propose economic models for how to redistribute that wealth more fairly. If the data has become this valuable, it is time for a new customer compact to be driven out by marketing organizations...one that can answer the following questions for consumers:

1. What their data is being used for

2. Who can see it

3. How to know it is being kept safe

4. How to obtain a copy

I contend that the transparency inferred here requires the creation of a new capability. This would consist of upgrading the user experience of digital channels to feature more obvious disclosure of privacy policies and terms of usage, developing internal protocols for handling customer data, and finally, providing ownership and accountability for the systems that ensure the former. Without this, marketing risks alienating the audience that has implicitly helped it gain new levels of credibility.

Customer data compact

Governing body or officer

Large advertising agency, Ogilvy and Mather, has suggested that alone this is not enough, and has proposed a management level construct to address the question of accountability. It created a new role called the Chief Data Officer (CDO), whose mandate is to:

● Develop and inform strategies for gathering and acquiring data and standardizing collection

● Assist in securing data from outside sources

● Develop advanced analytics approaches to predictive modeling and cross-channel data packages

Though the CDO approach has promise, I am not convinced that it is nimble enough to take on the challenges brought by an increasingly consumerist technology landscape in our enterprises. A centralized approach could just spur more rogue efforts that exacerbate the problems. Think of a marketing team that spins up its own social network to support product research and development, or a sales team that builds its own customer relationship management system using free cloud provisioned software or even a customer service group doing social media based surveys. These are all scenarios that are likely to have happened in many organizations today and likely for the right reasons since they empower the people closest to the customer.

Customer data compact

Governing body

or officer

Code of


With this in mind, the other missing component of our data governance model is a code of conduct surrounding customer data that educates employees on how to make responsible decisions for designing solutions and selecting software packages and vendors to support them.

This charter of sorts would describe the roles and responsibilities that exist in the organization for governing customer relationships, a summary of the systems available to represent customer data, and finally, a checklist of tradeoffs to consider in solution design, including:

● Collecting what's essential versus everything possible

● Opt-in over opt-out

● Providing transparency of intent of data usage

Enterprises exploring the new frontiers of digital innovation need to develop a governance strategy lest they become overtaken by the competitors who have made this their focus. The components of this include a customer data compact that outlines policies for handling and use of data, a customer facing management role to champion customer interest (we recommend something more in the spirit of 'Ombudsman' than 'Officer'), and the code of conduct to educate employees on tradeoffs to make in the course of doing business.

Adam Monago is the Head of Digital Strategy for global technology firm, ThoughtWorks. He loves building useful products and designing awesome online experiences.  When not wrangling content and analytics, Adam spends time with his family in northern California and tending to his garden.

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