Technology magazine Wired called 2014 the “Year of the Chief Digital Officer” (CDO). Technology group Gartner says that within the next 12 months, 24 percent of companies will have a CDO, calling it the “most strategic role this decade”. Still the “new kid” in the C-suite, chief digital officers are still struggling to figure out where they fit and what they are supposed to do.
Moreover, the role’s impact and capacity to provide strategic advantage are directly related to how the CDO remit is defined.
What is a CDO?
Brisbane City Council was only the second city in the world – after New York – to appoint a CDO. Cat Matson landed the role thanks to a solid marketing and small business background. She reports to the chief executive of Brisbane Marketing, the city’s economic development board, which is responsible for promoting Brisbane and plotting its prosperity.
“My role is one of influence and dot connecting,”says Matson. “So when I hear other senior executives talk about an initiative or program, I’ll see the opportunities for digital adoption or advancement.”
In a fast-evolving digital environment, tech-savvy CDOs are often recruited to transform an organisation. Their role is strategic and customer-focused. But to perform effectively, they need to be integrated within senior management and given the necessary resources.
William Confalonieri, CDO of Deakin University in Melbourne, sees himself as an agent of change. “You’re helping the business reinvent itself for the connected generation and driving innovation in an age where digital disruption is changing everything,”he says.
CDOs should promote a knowledge-sharing culture. Within organisations, they relate in various ways to more conventional senior executives – ideally working closely with chief information officers, chief operating officers and chief marketing officers. “Cross-pollination is key,” says Matson.
CDOs combine digital and strategy
This description rings true with Gerd Schenkel, executive director of Telstra Digital, who believes the CDO role is one which can combine an organisations’ operational objectives and digital initiatives. He says the role of the CDO has become increasingly important because the digital-first approach, which underpins transformation within many organisations, requires a highly strategic lead.
“Telstra has pursued a structured digital agenda over the last three years, rebuilding and extending its digital channels,” Schenkel says. “We believe that digital transformation and operational accountability provide important synergies.”
However, the power and strategic impact of the role are deeply connected to funding, staff levels and the reporting structure. There is a risk of the CDO becoming simply a meaningless sideshow in organisations in which the role was created merely to give the impression that a business “takes digital seriously”.
You’re helping the business reinvent itself for the connected generation and driving innovation in an age where digital disruption is changing everything.
Confalonieri, the only CDO of an Australian university, has qualifications in computer science, economics and business, and is passionate about the transformative nature of his role.
“You need to understand all the dimensions of the business and be a rounded professional who is across many disciplines,”he says. “You need to be a big-picture thinker and a visionary. You also need really good people skills in order to influence and change culture and bring everyone along with you.”
Becoming part of the team
Matson believes the CDO role will ultimately become standard. She says it is best designed as a generalist role – a C-suite position that looks strategically at the way technology delivers on business and customer requirements.
She says the rest of the C-suite is focused on their particular disciplines. “You need that CDO who is a generalist, with the digital understanding at a strategic and business level, to oversee what’s going on,”she says.
The CDO will eventually become obsolete, Matson predicts. “I don’t want to put myself out of a job too soon, but I’m really looking forward to the day when we stop talking about digital as something new.”
Chief digital officers:
- Are playing an increasingly important role in a number of industries because of the need to connect technology with business and customer requirements
- Often form a connection between the marketing and IT departments, and play an important strategic role connecting IT with business outcomes
- Need to be strategic thinkers who understand all facets of a business and have excellent leadership skills
- Can transform an organisation and extract maximum benefit from the opportunities of digital technology
- Are not always sufficiently resourced