How to get the best from a chief digital officer

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The chief digital officer (CDO) is a relatively new class of being in the taxonomy of corporate roles. In 2015 a study by Strategy& found that just 6% of the world's 1,500 largest companies had hired one. Its most recent 2017 CDO Study shows a slight improvement, with 19% of the world's largest 2,500 companies having CDOs. So, the trajectory is definitely upwards, but the curve is shallow.

When an organisation does decide to employ a chief digital officer, they need to make some strategic decisions. It will be a new role, so where does it fit in the organisation, what powers should it have, and what should its remit be?

Digital isn't about tech

Despite the title of the role, a CDO doesn't have to have a computer science background. Indeed, they are likely to be more effective if they have a "business head", able to grasp the financial incentives that push the business forwards, and understand people skills too.

The 2017 Strategy& research suggests organisations understand this. It found just 32% of CDOs have a technology background, and 39% have a marketing, sales or customer service background.

Herb Van der Raad, director of consulting services at Cognifide, a technology consultancy that's worked with Unilever, Ford and HSBC, tells IT Pro: "Digital isn't about the tech. It means a change of mindset, culture and establishing some fundamental capabilities that are very intuitive but difficult to embed. Arguably the most important quality is being a bit of a disruptive influence."

Setting the right tasks

All of which seems to point to a need to set the right tasks for a CDO, and that these might not be all about technology. Look at the example of London's recently appointed first CDO. The role includes working with the mayor's Smart London Board to develop a new Smart London Plan, and building collaboration across London boroughs. Tech is there, yes, but it is not the focus of the role.

Indeed the aspect of the role quoted in the appointment's public announcement is to "develop and promote partnership between the public, private and community sectors to enable and support the development of new public service oriented technology and innovation". This sounds more like soft people management skills than hard technology skills.

Harry Metcalfe, managing director of public sector digital specialist dxw, endorses this approach, saying an effective CDO "[brings] the ability to work across multiple existing teams and structures, bringing together the skills of the IT and digital teams, and can lead a move away from a linear approach to development towards a more iterative, adaptive model".

A seat on the board?

In order to achieve this kind of unification of different sections of an organisation or, as in the London case, entirely different organisations, the CDO needs to have some clout. Arguably putting them in the right part of the hierarchy is the most important decision an employer can make and that almost certainly means giving them a board position.

Metcalf points out: "If the CDO sits alongside the CEO, they can champion projects at the point where financial and operational decisions are taken. They provide sponsorship at a strategically senior level, which is vital if digital transformation is to be truly successful and can mediate disagreements between teams in the organisation at a level lower than CEO."

A board level position also frees the CDO up to range freely across the organisation. Theirs is the kind of role that will dip in and out of hierarchical structures they need to feel unfettered by their own position within the organisation and confident that they won't be undermined by senior voices.

Sanjay Srivastava, chief digital officer at global professional services firm, Genpact, who reports directly to the CEO, endorses this. "CDOs who report to the CEO are better positioned to drive fundamental changes across the organisation," he says.

Squaring the circle

Of course, all of this depends on what an organisation expects its chief digital officer to achieve, and here there is no standard definition. Herb Van der Raad says: "A CDO should, in many cases, see their role as temporary and drive to make themselves redundant. Digital is business, digital strategy is just part of strategy, customer centricity and optimising processes with new technologies is everyone's remit."

Few might take their thinking that far along the line, believing instead that there will always be more ways to implement and improve digital strategies across the organisation. But it is fair to say that once an organisation has employed a chief digital officer, they cross a line in the sand. For some that line will represent a move towards becoming 'digital first', for others the hoped for changes might be less fundamental at least to start with. But whatever the aspiration, digital should be an aspect of every new initiative, and digital transformation about every facet of the organisation.

Main image credit: Bigstock

Sandra Vogel
Freelance journalist

Sandra Vogel is a freelance journalist with decades of experience in long-form and explainer content, research papers, case studies, white papers, blogs, books, and hardware reviews. She has contributed to ZDNet, national newspapers and many of the best known technology web sites.

At ITPro, Sandra has contributed articles on artificial intelligence (AI), measures that can be taken to cope with inflation, the telecoms industry, risk management, and C-suite strategies. In the past, Sandra also contributed handset reviews for ITPro and has written for the brand for more than 13 years in total.