The Chief Digital Officer. Doomed or Destiny?

Chief Digital Officer Graphic

If you haven’t heard, there’s a new title making its way to a C-suite near you: Chief Digital Officer.  I’m certainly not breaking this news, MIT, Forbes, Wall Street Journal and an array of others have covered the emergence of the CDO in the last few months.  There’s already a Chief Digital Officer Summit and a long and growing list of respected organizations who’ve made the jump and hired CDOs.  The Chief Digital Officer is here.  Whether the CDO is here to stay is another question.

The business world is still getting its collective head around the idea of a CDO with perspectives ranging from overtly negative to extremely bullish.  A Russell Reynolds Associates piece states  “In many cases, the CDO will be the senior executive handling the fastest growing revenue streams within the business or will be the executive holding the keys to the company’s future—placing him or her squarely in line to replace the CEO.”  Sounds like a position a few people might be interested in.

Whether or not you’re a believer in the CDO role, it’s clear we are in a state of massive transition and accelerated organizational evolution.  Gone are the days of neatly parsing functional roles and responsibilities and managing an organization in old-school silos.  The modern business fabric should be tightly-woven, highly connected and effectively blended.  The CDO role could be a catalyst to create more collaborative, multidimensional businesses if that isn’t happening organically, or the role could be quickly marginalized and tossed on the “great idea, didn’t quite work the way we thought” heap.

While we wait to see how things evolve, I see a handful of reasons a CDO might be a fantastic idea:

Hybrid power – Whether it’s a marketing-minded technologist or a technology-minded marketer we need leaders with a hybrid skill set.  To some extent this is happening now where marketers are increasingly tech-savvy and a surprising number of IT-professionals are becoming much more knowledgeable about marketing.  Still a long way to go on both sides of that equation so a CDO with skills in both areas would be valuable.

Independent perspective – A CDO may be in a position to provide counsel or make key decisions without the innate organizational biases of their CIO/CMO counterparts.  It may be naive to think a member of any organization is without bias and not impacted by political factors, but a new role could disrupt entrenched structures and allow new approaches and ideas to take hold.

Holistic thinking – In Marketing and IT we often gravitate to thinking about things in terms of technologies, tools, campaigns, and programs.  Even when thinking strategically there seems to be a natural inclination to slide into these more tactical or narrowly focused frames.  A CDO might be in a position to think more holistically.

And there are of course a handful of reasons a Chief Digital Officer might not work well:

Not a one size fits all – Both the definition of the CDO role as well as unique organizational dynamics will define the success or failure of the CDO.  These definitions and dynamics will vary wildly as will the success rate of the CDO.  Adjusting to a new member of an executive team could be a bumpy transition even where the CDO role and individual in that position are seen as significant contributors.

CIO/CMO marginalization – How will current CIO/CMO’s react to a CDO?  Will this new position be seen as a valuable resource or perceived as a wedge driving them further from the CEO and hijacking their budgets, talent, and internal influence?  It’s easy to think about the insertion of the CDO rationally without considering the human reality of how existing leadership may react.  A likely reality is many CIO/CMOs may not be wild about the impact of a CDO.  How would you feel?

Collaborative culture – Whether it’s a CDO leading the way or the existing CIO/CMO team the key to digital success will be organizational alignment, shared objectives and a collaborative culture.  Businesses who understand this will ultimately get where they need to go.  Businesses who don’t will end up crashed on the rocks, regardless of which C-title is running the show.  A CDO in the wrong culture will have a tough path to success.

Overall organizational alignment, shared vision, and objectives is the CEO’s job.  I personally believe the CEO needs to be the CDO.  Who better than the CEO to create and communicate a vision and organizational framework coupled with a smart, empowered team to execute around that structure?  Stepping back a bit, the CDO role is only a little piece of the bigger story of how businesses will adapt to the convergence of tools, technologies, and consumer expectations in an always-on, multi-platform world.  The Chief Digital Officer experiment is underway.

photo credit: JD Hancock via photopin cc