Monday, 28 April 2014

Chief digital officers step into CIOs’ shoes

A buzz has building up around the emergence of the chief digital officer (CDO) in large organisations. It’s strong enough for communities such as the US based Chief Digital Officer Club to have emerged, and to have prompted organisations to ask what the role involves and what it can do for their prospects.

The second is easier to answer: it should provide a competitive edge as the world moves towards carrying out most of its business digitally. The first is more difficult as the role is still emerging and precise definitions vary; but in general it’s about shaking up the business to ensure that its IT infrastructure and information management are lean, mean and properly aligned to raise the game in operations and dealing with customers.

Sound familiar? A few years ago people were talking about the chief information officers (CIO) as the hot new job in similar terms.

Commentators are making a distinction between the roles of CDO and CIO, which generally refer to the latter as a head of technology and the former as someone who knows the technology but also ‘gets’ the whole business and understands its market. Again, this is close to how people were talking about the CIO role a few years ago, but reflects the fact that in many organisations it has now been shoved back into a technology box. There are CIOs who are up there at board level, helping to shape the strategy of a business and with the authority to make a difference, but plenty are confined to jobs that are much closer to the traditional head of IT.

This came up at a recent BCS Digital Leaders’ Summit, with talk about the fact that, after the aspirations of the mid 2000s, many CIOs haven’t got close to the boardroom. A background in IT, for all the strengths it brings, was almost seen as a disadvantage. Some blame was attached to a traditional failing of IT professionals in keeping their minds on the technology, and not getting to grips with the broader business issues or learning the language of the boardroom. But it can work with the other way, with board members and senior managers too keen to see a techy as no more than a techy. Whatever the reasons, it has left a gap that some are looking to CDOs to fill.

They may well fill it in some organisations, but in the space of 10 years will they go the same way as the CIO? The fact that a CDO needs to know the technology means a lot of candidates will come from an IT background, but this could make those at the top quick to place them in the same techy box.

Or can CIOs change, adding a few more skills to take on the CDO role? Maybe, but it won’t just be about skills, but a more assertive approach and different attitudes from other C-suite leaders.

Then there’s always the possibility that in a few years the gap will still be unfilled and someone will invent a new title for the same job. I hope not.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

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