The latest Alation user conference featured presentations from an impressive lineup of data leaders, including a session with Michelle Hoiseth, Chief Data Officer of Parexel.
Hoiseth is the first Chief Data Officer for the global provider of biopharmaceutical services. At Alation’s users conference, she shared her thoughts on the CDO journey. Below is the recap of her discussion with Dave Kellogg, principal Dave Kellogg consulting and Alation director.

Dave Kellogg, principal Dave Kellogg consulting and Alation director: You’ve been at Parexel for over 20 years and are the company’s first CDO. You’ve been in that role for two years. I’d love to understand how you came to take that role.

Michelle Hoiseth, Chief Data Officer of Parexel: I’m not a data scientist or a technologist by background. I am a clinical researcher by background. In the life science sector, we have struggled for a long time to really be able to leverage big data and transform the way we were working. We were approaching the challenge as though it were a technology problem, a data problem. We underappreciated the complexity of the clinical development process and the importance of domain expertise in making the advances really work in the business.

The business that I was in at Parexel five to seven years ago was really focused on understanding the value and impact of treatments in the real world. Moving beyond understanding the safety and efficacy of a therapy in a controlled clinical trial setting, to really understand its impact in the real world, on the total cost of care of a patient population, for example. It was the first place where real-world data and healthcare data were showing up in the life science sector. We needed to understand how we could leverage data that was forming in electronic medical record systems, claim systems, and pharmacy claims systems to really see the impact of new treatments.

I had been asked in that business to develop our real-world data strategy, and as I stepped into that, I had to kind of peel the onion to understand where we were architecturally. Where was data governance in our business? What was our approach to how we were managing data? What I uncovered was that we were very fragmented. We ended up having to build a capability in real-world data that was adjacent to what we were already doing with our own business data.

Meanwhile, we were funding a number of initiatives intended to advance our business operations and analytics capabilities. Our leadership team formed the CDO role, and the work that I was doing with the real-world data strategy and trying to understand what data needed to do to enable us to improve the business, fit what the leadership team wanted from the role.


Dave: How would you describe your role, and how did you approach it?

Michelle: Enabling the business to operate differently and more efficiently is a huge priority. Step one is appreciating that your data is an asset to enable your business.

To do that, we spent the last year intensively closing the gap between our corporate IT function and our business. Anything that dealt with the data we were forming was sitting in IT, and IT had drifted away from the business. Since then, our IT function has undergone a really robust and profound reorganization to face the business and the various aspects of it differently. I have spent three quarters of my time in the last year to further bridge that gap, creating new structures and processes to bring the operators together more effectively. Many days I feel as though I serve a translation function, if you will, between IT and the business to enable the business to better understand the implications of their decisions and enable IT to understand why the business is asking for what they’re asking for.

As we turn into this next calendar year, I’m seeing evidence that the necessary dialogue is happening more organically and more natively. I am hopeful that I can step back and more aggressively drive our enterprise data strategy. But creating the right dialogue between IT and the business is a necessary first step.


Dave: How is Alation helping you on this journey?

Michelle: When you think about the 20,000 people at Parexel – a service business – almost everybody is a data generator, a data consumer, or an analytics recipient. The breadth of cultural change and the momentous shift in mindset that we need touches nearly all of those 20,000 people across 80 countries.

The power of the data catalog to me is in the way it encourages people to interact with each other around our data, and contributes to people embracing this cultural and mindset shift. Now, people go to the data catalog and have an exchange when they have data or analytics needs. In the past, that process required a lot of guesswork, like “Is the best data source in this system or that?” The data catalog centralizes data work and creates an awareness that has allowed us to do air traffic control in a way that we never have been able to around the needs of the business and their consumption needs. This not only helps move us from our fragmented or siloed past, but also improves the quality and trustworthiness of the result, as well as speeds the processing time.

The best part is that Alation is built to not only create transparency, but to enable interpersonal interaction around data. People see who is accountable for that data, the viability or quality of that data, classification or other limitations of use. They are then able to create a direct connection with people whose job it is to help them get their data needs met, no matter who you are or where you are in the business. I don’t think we would be able to move through this cultural shift at the rate we are if it weren’t for Alation and the way that Alation is built.


Dave: How have you been able to drive data culture?

Michelle: We are using an incremental value generation approach. We focused first on key transformative analytics initiatives that generated value back to those user communities. We are building process and infrastructure as we service those teams, so we have needed to provide a lot of hypercare around it and then let that ripple out to other parts of the business. There’s been an incredible amount of cat herding from the very most senior levels of our leadership team down to data entry personnel. I would say for us, it is the centralized function that is set up to service the various Parexel businesses as hubs, or as spokes, has allowed us to do more.


Dave: What were some of the KPIs you used to measure the success of your data strategy?

Michelle: Some of them are very fundamental. It’s improvement in the time to access data, the quality of the reporting, and the speed to generate new analysis. There is a related tendril that goes to our reduction of technical debt.


Dave: Do you have any methods in place to quantify the value of your data?

Michelle: If we are effectively treating our data as an asset and improving our service delivery as a business based on data, the value would show up in efficiency in the workforce, the service delivery, and the speed with which we execute studies. Being able to have more predictable study designs, more predictable study delivery, and effectively leveraging that data, benefits our customers through the accuracy of our scoping and the speed and delivery of the studies. Internally, it shows up as things like better and more trusted forecasting accuracy, and tighter financial controls.


Dave: What’s the best advice you would give to an aspiring CDO?

Michelle: You need to understand the value of the data, the needs for the data in your business, and appreciate the current state while keeping one eye on the horizon. You have to be an equal partner to the business to understand what they need to improve the current state and anticipate what they will need two years from now. Maintaining that balance ensures that you are enabling them to be successful.


Dave: You mentioned some resources that you used when you first got that job too. Would that be a good resource for people?

Michelle: Understanding the different focuses a CDO can have is important in helping you figure out where you can have the most impact. As a starting point, Randy Bean and Thomas Davenport wrote an article titled, Are You Asking Too Much of Your Chief Data Officer? The article discusses the seven different major jobs that a CDO can have. Randy is a founder of NewVantage Partners, a consultancy focused on data transformation. Consultancies – big or small – that really know your business sector can be incredibly valuable.

One of the best ways to learn about the role of the CDO is to connect with others who are asking the same questions. There are two organizations that put together good events for CDOs and aspiring CDOs.

Evanta runs regional CDO communities, including town halls and annual meetings. These events can be a great place to discuss challenges and solutions and create a local cross-sector network.

Also, the MIT Chief Data Officer and Information Quality Symposium is an excellent annual event that brings together leaders from across industries and something that CDOs should consider attending in the future. On top of that, MIT Sloan publishes a lot of content on issues that are top-of-mind for CDOs and is a great resource.

Dave: Excellent! Thank you for joining us today and giving us a better understanding of your CDO journey.

The Alation State of Data Culture Report Q3 2021

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