Is the Chief Digital Officer a real thing?

I have been doing a number of Chief Digital Officer (CDO) searches recently. My first reaction to a CDO search inquiry is, if you want a CDO, you don’t have a decent CIO. But it’s not that simple.

The real question to ask is this: How is your business dealing with the opportunity of digitization? All businesses are being impacted – both at the “core” and “edges”.

My definitions:

Core = your internal processes.

Edges = data that is external to your core, is customer related, and hugely impactful.

*Core and edges eventually merge into a Platform – which your CDO should build toward.

Digitization = Big Data/Analytics, AI/Machine learning, Cloud, Mobile, Social, IoT, Bots – all the really cool stuff happening in the world today.

The challenge many CEO’s face is that everyone on his/her team wants money for Technology – the CIO, CFO, CHRO, CMO, Sales, Operations etc. The potential initiatives all have great ROIs, seem plausible, but there is not an endless supply of money – so how do you decide what to do, who goes first, and not end up with stranded investments. So the CEO turns to us to help him/her think this through, and the discussion turns to a CDO – or Digital Transformation Exec (call it what you will).

My view is that the CDO = CEO and team. I don’t think it’s a new function (like a CMO, CFO, CHRO); it is a digital way of doing business and goes to the core of every organization’s business model. The problem is that most CEO’s are not digitally literate, and so the CDO becomes the CEO’s “proxy” for the digital transformation that all companies are addressing. So, it is essentially a transition role – helping an organization go from analog to digital, and once done, the CDO should take a role on the SLT, or move on. Depending on industry this “transition” can last 3 – 7 years.

What does the CDO do?

  • That obviously depends on industry, but like all transformations, s/he should have both quick wins and also a long term strategic agenda.
  • Core activity. Understand how digital can change core processes. AI, Bots, etc. I can’t wait to see how Amazon rethinks the core processes of Whole Foods. For healthcare – using data (internal and external) to help with diagnosis so Doctors can spend more quality time with patients.
  • Edges. There is often more customer data outside the organization than inside. How do you partner, ingest external data, and create algorithms to assist in delivering value?
  • Interact with customers the way they want. Web, Mobile, Social, Augmented Reality, Bots, etc.
  • Craft the digital roadmap. This is the long-term strategy and involves technology, business processes/architecture, and generally educating and helping the SLT see how the business might transform.
  • Ensure that the digital roadmap supports the core purpose and goals of the organization as articulated by the SLT. It is important that the CDO work in collaboration with other members of the team – as this role may be perceived as threatening and disruptive.
  • S/he can have the CIO report in, be the CIO as well, or sit outside IT. What you don’t want however is for the CDO just to be a glorified CIO and get sucked into IT stuff all of his/her time.

What does a CDO look like? What is the best background for her/him to have?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Ability to lead transformation – horizontally. As seen above, the CDO must digitize the core as well as the edges. A systems thinker.
  • Ability to articulate a strategic vision.
  • Technical chops to understand and evaluate tech trends and see how/where they might fit. Need the ability to articulate a corporate digital roadmap and architecture.
  • Communication/evangelism/charisma. All organizations are becoming tech organizations and the CDO must have the ability to inspire his/her peers to see the benefits of moving toward this new reality.
  • A background rooted in some type of digital consumer-oriented business. Preferable is for him/her to have led a digital transformation in such an organization. Second is to come from a pure play digital business – she/he will “get it” but won’t have gone through the learning of a transformation.
  • Patience, organizational savvy, and fortitude. To understand how to manage and push through on the change agenda. Collaboration with peers, support, and buy-in from the CEO.
  • Consumerism. We all experience daily the Apple UX with Amazon fulfillment/backend – it is what we expect from everyone we deal with. The best candidates have been key players on this digital journey and understand where the opportunities/road bumps are to be found.

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