What comes after the CDO?


The language of the IT industry is in a constant state of flux. Great at hyping up concepts and then knocking them down, phrases coined by the industry naturally evolve as the systems and services change. And that evolution, rather than just being confined to the tools of the trade, is also used to explain transformations in IT leadership.

Take the role of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO), for example. The role started being hyped three or four years ago. Gartner suggested the CDO “would prove to be the most exciting strategic role in the decade ahead”. The analyst predicted 25 per cent of organisations would have a CDO by 2015.

Now fully into 2015, how is that prediction panning out? A reasonable answer for that question is probably ‘somewhat mixed’. Examples of CDOs at big firms are not hard to find. Blue chips, such as McDonald’s, General Electric and Renault, have benefited from having CDOs in situ. These executives use technology and innovation to boost the customer experience. Starbucks, for example, is famous for its use of apps alongside its successful loyalty programme. The Guardian, meanwhile, has created a product team to delve into new opportunities around data and analytics.

Yet for all these success stories, there remains a nagging apprehension that the CDO role could simply be another case of technology hype. For one thing, CIOs have started openly questioning the significance of the role, pointing to the fact that they themselves are already pushing transformation through digital technology.

Naysayers might suggest such outspokenness is simply a result of the competition around IT leadership at a time when CIOs are at risk of losing control of technology procurement to individual lines-of-business. Yet further proof for the potential demise of the CDO role comes from Forrester, who believes organisations should avoid adding another chief to the boardroom. The researcher suggests that 2015 will be the year that great CIOs prove the CDO role is unnecessary.

For some CIOs, this call to action might prove a tough ask. Many IT leaders are still far too focused on operational concerns. They are weighed down by the day-to-day responsibilities of running an IT department and are unable to spend as much as time as they should – perhaps as much as 70 or 80 per cent – on customer-facing innovation. However, CIOs must face this challenge head on. IT leaders who fail to address the rise of the CDO, never mind the rise of the marketing chief and the data scientist, will find themselves looking like an executive spare part. So much of IT can be bought as a service now that CIOs are likely to have less of an in-house technology organisation to control.

CIOs who embrace change will be able to call on their years of experience and demonstrate how the business can create value from new digital technologies. As such projects are subsumed within normal business practices, the need for a CDO might well start to subside.

The executive who is best placed to lead the digital agenda is then likely to be the CIO – the very person who feared that all-things-digital might lead to the death of their C-suite role.


Gartner on the growth of the CDO role:

Examples of companies with CDOs:

The rise and fall of the CDO: