Harvard chief digital officer: Infuse ‘data-informed thinking’ into the culture

The importance of the chief digital officer will only increase over the coming years. Gartner predicts that some 25 per cent of businesses will have a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) by 2015.  Having a CDO is a demonstrable sign that your organization is serious about digital technology. Organizations need to embrace that we are now living in a digital world and that having a leader charged with intimately understanding how to navigate this new world will be critical for success.

As chief digital officer of Harvard University, Perry Hewitt leads the development of a comprehensive digital strategy for communications and engagement. I recently spoke with Hewitt and learned her thoughts on the importance of having ‘data-informed thinking’ infused into your culture and why cloud computing is a “tremendous accelerant and innovation driver.”

Clendenin:  What is the role of the Chief Digital Officer?

Hewitt:  “I see the Chief Digital Officer role as a catalytic role to help large organizations think about ways that digital technology disrupts services like marketing communications, engagement as well as some of the core business functions. Secondly, CDOs must create ways to enable digital transformation of the businesses – and the cloud is an important means for effecting change quickly and nimbly.”

Clendenin:  You have said in the past that ‘the best thing about digital is that you can measure everything and the worst thing about digital is that you can measure everything.’  What do you mean?

Hewitt: “The ‘best part’ means there are ways to quantify performance, efficacy, reach and spend that never existed before. The ‘worst part’ has to do with the tendency of mere humans to lose focus when presented with too much data to measure the wrong things. For example, people can get very fixated on metrics like ‘time on site’ and not focus on ‘reading depth’ or something more important to their organization.  It’s easy with piles and piles of data to ‘feel’ like you are doing something when you’re not. Turning data into information that’s memorable and actionable is vital.

Clendenin:  How do you define the difference between data-informed thinking and data-driven?

Hewitt:  “For mission-driven organizations in particular, it’s hard to envision a world in which we are 100% data-driven. So much of what we do to tell the story of Harvard University from the smallest department to the largest initiative that were we to be solely data-driven we would not always represent the breadth and depth of what we do. However, to be data-informed is hugely important as scaffolding for decision-making. For example, our analytics practice fueled understanding of mobile traffic and reading depth on the Gazette website, and spurred a 2013 redesign that drove tangible improvements in content consumption and sharing.”

Clendenin: Why is it important to have data-informed thinking in your organizational culture?

Hewitt:  “I think it’s absolutely vital. We are living in the rise of the analytical executive and we are now able to track, collect, distill and interpret data in ways we never were before.  There is a tremendous opportunity whether we are talking about web analytics or aggregated personal data from the Internet of Things. There is a huge opportunity to see data differently and I think the next big job might well be the Chief Analytics Officer.”

Clendenin:  What is your view on cloud computing?

Hewitt:  “For me, cloud is a tremendous accelerant and innovation driver.  It’s so much easier to conceive, develop, design and deliver services using cloud-based solutions than it was in a world of on-premise.  We have been able to adopt new SaaS platforms to drive digital initiatives like real-time and social media measurement at a far lower cost than conceivable even five years ago.”

Clendenin:  What do you think the future holds for cloud computing?

Hewitt:  “I think ubiquitous access to the cloud will soon be thought of like Internet connectivity – it’s a dial tone that we will expect to be there all the time. We will have to figure out complicated issues like security and hosting.  Budget models for large organizations will have to change as line items are written for on-premise software and license fees – not subscription-based software hosted in the cloud with pricing based on usage. It’s really a fundamental shift in terms of how the enterprise can adjust for this.”


Brian Clendenin
Brian Clendenin
Innovating the Canadian Enterprise at Box. Prior to Box, I served at the research firm Gartner and write on the topics of leadership, IT strategy, and the future of work. Invest my time speaking with engaging thought leaders.

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