what is a CAO?

In a grad program of 86 students, it’s hard to get to know every student particularly well. As such, reputations start to crop up as a kind of interpersonal shorthand. Thankfully these reputations are generally positive, even if they are a bit one-dimensional. There’s the Networking Master, the Class Clown, the Consultant. My best guess for my own reputation, based on conversations I’ve had with classmates, is Blog Girl. I appreciate this, because people feed me blog ideas every couple of days, which is helpful during dry spells.

However, I think I accidentally expanded that reputation. The other week, a speaker was helping us understand the differences between analytics job titles — consultant vs. analyst vs. data scientist vs. manager, etc. He asked if there were any other positions he hadn’t mentioned, and I raised my hand to ask about the title of CAO, or Chief Analytics Officer. I somehow didn’t realize this would mean I’d have to stand in front of the entire class and explain what I thought a CAO does. But I did, so now I’m the Student Who is Going to Sit in the C-Suite Right After Graduation. That estimation is about 10-15 years ahead of what I think is realistic, but I appreciate the vote of confidence.

So what is a CAO, exactly?
The role can vary depending on the organization. Additionally, it’s such a new concept that both our speaker and the majority of my classmates were wholly unfamiliar with it. (“Did you mean CIO? CEO?”) Ideally, the CAO sits on the board of directors and reports directly to the CEO. The CAO is responsible for envisioning and directing an organization-wide analytics strategic plan. Because so many organizations are at different points in their adoption of analytics, this is where many of the differences can crop up: one CAO may be building an analytics team from the ground up, whereas another may be steering a well-built, seasoned ship. Either way, the CAO needs to make sure that their organization is on the cutting edge of data usage and analysis, as well as making sure that all branches of the organization have access to analytics, preventing the data science geeks from getting siloed into a handful of business priorities.

Just as the CFO cannot be replaced by some combination of the CIO and CTO, the CAO warrants her own spot in the C-suite. Sure, finance and analytics both involve managing information through the use of technology, but there’s that pesky accounting stuff that only the CFO knows how to manage, and all kinds of statistical know-how merged with business acumen that only the CAO can adequately cover.

“Chief Analytics Officer” is not a hypothetical position.
These positions already exist in big organizations like AOL and Teradata, startups such as AllSource Analysis, and even the City of New York (although, a year and a half later, it appears the Michael Flowers is no longer holding the inaugural position).

With the accelerated adoption of analytics across industries, we can expect to see the CAO position become ubiquitous in the next decade. So who knows? Maybe you’ll see yours truly as the CAO of a startup in a year or two…