As a research vice-president at Gartner Inc., Chris Howard has a lot of experience providing insight and guidance to all kinds of executive leaders, particularly CIOs. On a recent trip to Germany, however, he found himself having a conversation with a manufacturing firm where one of the key stakeholders was a chief digital officer — to whom the CIO reported.
“I used to think ‘CDO’ was kind of an ephemeral title,” Howard told me during a press conference at the IT Symposium/Xpo that was held in Toronto this week. “Now I’m not so sure.”
He wasn’t the only one to have doubts. As more organizations hopped on the digital transformation bandwagon, I saw the appointments and hirings of CDOs as symptomatic of a desire to look cutting-edge. You may not have a great web site, for example, or a compelling mobile app or whatever, but having a CDO at the table at least suggests that good things are coming.
“In some cases, I think they were put there because the organization in question was unhappy with the CIO’s performance,” Howard said, half-laughing. And of course, that’s probably true, too. CIOs — who need to not only think of digital tools and experiences but all the underlying infrastructure and security that supports and protects corporate data — may not always have moved at the pace CEOs and other decision-makers would have liked.
As Howard pointed out, a lot of CDOs were first hired by media companies, which makes sense given most media products are now primarily digital in nature. Today, however, I’ve personally connected with CDOs of major financial institutions who are working hand-in-hand with the CIO, as well as those in marketing and other functions to develop more intuitive and dynamic ways of working and interacting with customers.
We’re also seeing them crop up in public sector organizations. In Ontario, the province where I’m based, Hilary Hartley is now considered a such a star that trying to secure her as a speaker for an event I was hosting was like trying to get an audience with the Pope). Retail, health-care and education are other sectors where CDOs would probably have a lot to offer.
Part of the value in a CDO, Howard suggested, is their potential to talk to the rest of the business in a language they can readily understand, versus what has been the more historically obscure jargon of IT that CIOs need to master. The main measurement of CDO success, he said, was how well a CDO helps an organization identify and act on ways digital technologies can contribute to existing (and often changing) business models.
The one place I don’t see CDOs very often? Startups, scaleups or mid-sized firms. In many cases the de facto CDO might be the founder or owner. Though they often acts as the CIO, too, it’s not uncommon to see a formal IT leader appointed once a company grows to a certain size. If a firm has been digital from the start, however, they may not need someone to help it catch up the way larger enterprises seem to do.
The long-term question is whether, at a certain point, most organizations will be not necessarily have become digital leaders but perhaps “digital enough” that a CDO role is redundant. Does that even matter, though? Even if CDOs aren’t here to stay, isn’t worth paying closer to attention to what they’re doing, right here and now? That’s why we’re treating June as “The CDO Issue” on B2BNN,. There’s a lot to learn by those who were first to help us all become “digital-first” — even if their job title wasn’t built to last.
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