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Business of Data Meets: AXA PPP Healthcare CDAO Nirali Patel

To mark being named one of the world’s most innovative data and analytics leaders, AXA PPP Healthcare CDAO Nirali Patel talks about digital transformation, retaining data talent and why CDOs should be joined at the hip with their digital strategy leaders

What were your greatest professional achievements in 2019?

One of the greatest things that we’ve done and that my organization has enabled me to do is to bring together a lot of siloed teams and give them a clear operating model (with goals) that recognizes their input into our data and analytics industry.

We created a data and analytics career pathway within my organization for analysts who didn’t really have a career pathway in this field, giving them the opportunity to be recognized in their own right as data experts and setting up appropriate training and development programs to support them further.

You could come in as what I’d call a business data analyst and end up being a data scientist, if you want to. Each individual’s development path is really up to them, enabling them to be the best in what they do.

I’ve also hit a point where the demand on data exceeds the resource that we have support it. Now, that doesn’t mean that we as an organization are 100% data literate. But it does mean that we have truly recognized, nearly all the way through the levels, that data is integral to the success of our organization.

How will you build on those successes in 2020?

As the CDAO for our business, my focus for the next 12 months is continuing to empower my team to be the best versions of themselves and support them in the diverse careers that we have within the data and analytics department.

The other part is to get continued buy-in from my stakeholders on our data strategy. That could be a claims handler on the phone through to the CEO, through helping them understand the direct line impact of our data strategy for them in their ‘day to day’ work life and in the strategic view, as well for how we help our customers live the best versions of themselves.

So, it’s really a ‘people and culture’ focus for the next year, while still delivering value through analytics. But the key thing for me is that, if there is enough buy-in from the business and there is enough demand from the business and there’s a good understanding within the business, that is when data and analytics can be truly successful.

What challenges do you anticipate running into this year? And what’s your strategy for overcoming them?

So, the challenges that I anticipate are the same challenges I currently face. I believe most data leaders around the world would face the same challenges – rapid advancement of tech, increasing governance and business appetite for risk, not to mention the ‘I want it now’ culture we live in.

One of the biggest challenges for us as a health organization as well as an insurance organization is the use of health data under the Data Protection Act of 2018 and how we continue to ensure that we use it carefully, safely and in the best interest of our members.

The other key challenge is having the time and the capacity to actually change the capabilities within our organization and actually truly transform the organization from a data perspective, in a world where our organization is going through massive business change anyway.

How do you think the CDAO role has changed in recent years?

When I joined the organization, I was the Chief Data Officer, bought in to set up a center of excellence around data management and analytics.

Since then, I’ve inherited data governance, in the wake of the GDPR. More recently in the last 12 months, we have merged all the management information and business intelligence teams from across the business and dived deeper into operational data architecture.

So, my personal role has grown year on year and hasn’t stayed steady. I came in to focus on a very niche area and now it’s gone literally ‘all-encompassing’ for data.

It’s really unusual in a large organization like the one that I work in for it to have a single person to have ownership of, end-to-end, the data and analytics and data science. I have found that you tend to find it in the smaller digital companies.

How do you think the role should change in the future?

The role needs to become more digital-focused. I actually think that most CDOs or CDAOs will eventually blend in or be joined at the hip with their digital strategy leaders. That’s because you can’t do one without the other most effectively or efficiently.

If you think about what skills you’re going to need for that, there are your normal soft skills around communication, influencing, understanding and empathy. But there’s also truly being able to delegate and empower your people to make those decisions for you. Especially when you go digital, because it’s less controlled environment.

So, for a role like mine 1-3 years down the line, a CDAO will really need to have a good understanding of what the digital strategy is and how data and digital are going to work together, and be aware and ready to adopt federated operating models as the organization grows.