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From NBA courtside to global CDO: The journey of data visionary Inderpal Bhandari

In the latest episode of the DataDriven podcast, Manish Sood, CEO and Founder of Reltio sat down with Dr. Inderpal Bhandari, a visionary who revolutionized data analytics in professional sports and beyond. Their discussion spanned from his pioneering work in the NBA to his influential role in shaping the position of Chief Data Officer (CDO) in large enterprises.

Key takeaways from the DataDriven interview with Inderpal Bhandari:

  • Inderpal Bhandari started applying data analytics principles early in his career, using it for NBA talent scouting in the 1990s before the book Moneyball popularized the approach.
  • CDOs need to be able to communicate effectively with the C-suite in business terms. Technical expertise alone is not enough.
  • Looking ahead, Bhandari predicts enterprises will still struggle to scale AI due to a lack of trust in the models. More work is needed on data quality, explainability and transparency.

Pioneering data analytics in professional sports

Dr. Bhandari's journey is nothing short of remarkable. At the beginning of his career with IBM, he and his team were contracted by the New York Knicks. Their mission? To provide detailed data analytics on the team and its competitors. This project garnered attention across the NBA, leading to the league-wide adoption of IBM's Advanced Scout software. Dr. Bhandari's regret at not penning a 'Moneyball'-esque book underscores the groundbreaking nature of his work, which predated the popularization of data analytics in sports.

The rising importance of the Chief Data Officer

Transitioning from sports analytics to corporate strategy, Dr. Bhandari’s career advanced to a pivotal role as the Global CDO at IBM and later as an Independent Director at Walgreens Boots Alliance. His journey illuminates the evolving role of the CDO in large corporations. A key highlight from our discussion was the short tenure of CDOs, a phenomenon Dr. Bhandari attributes to mismatched skill sets and focusing on the wrong priorities. Successful CDOs, he argues, must prioritize changing enterprise culture and championing data utilization over a sole focus on technology.

Skills beyond technology: The CDO as change agent

A crucial takeaway from the conversation is the multifaceted skill set required of a CDO. The role demands technical expertise and strong capabilities in business communication and cultural transformation. Many CDOs falter by leaning too heavily on their technical background, neglecting the vital aspects of business understanding and corporate culture. As a change agent, a CDO must navigate these complex dynamics, often in environments resistant to change.

Cultural transformation and data strategy

Dr. Bhandari emphasized the importance of cultural transformation in the adoption of data and AI strategies. In his view, effective data strategy extends beyond technology; it requires investment in the right people and a business culture that values data-driven decision-making. The role of the CDO, therefore, is to catalyze this shift, guiding both the technological and cultural evolution of the organization. The CDO, however, must also become immersed in the business itself and understand how data can transform a company.

The future of AI hinges on trusted data

Looking forward, Dr. Bhandari predicts that AI and data analytics will continue to be integral to business strategy and societal advancement. However, this potential can only be realized if these technologies are trusted and understood. Trusted data lies at the foundation of AI and technology – without it the C-Suite will lose faith and look for different solutions. CDOs have a unique opportunity to lead this charge, ensuring that data is trustworthy and that AI is used responsibly and effectively in enterprises.

Dr. Inderpal Bhandari’s journey from developing analytics for the NBA to leading data strategies at IBM and Walgreens Boots Alliance offers invaluable insights into the evolving role of data in business and society. His emphasis on the need for CDOs to be adept in soft skills, cultural change, and business strategy highlights the multifaceted nature of this critical role. As organizations continue to navigate the rapidly changing landscape of data and AI, the insights from leaders like Dr. Bhandari will be instrumental in shaping a data-driven future.

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