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EXCLUSIVE – The role of the Chief Digital Officer – Leader, Innovator the future

EXCLUSIVE - The role of the Chief Digital Officer - Leader

Is the CDO good or bad news for the CIO? From my research the indication is that companies are hiring CDO’s to run the strategic customer-facing operation such as online sales. They are looking to the CDO to transform the business, that is digitally not technologically.

OpenGov spoke with Marc Dimmick, CIO at Dept of Sports and Recreation, Perth, Australia on his views on the topic.  

With the number of CDOs being hired and similar roles of Chief Data Officer, Chief Security Officer is starting to leave CIOs wondering where their role stands. It has been predicted that 25 percent of companies will hire a CDO in the next two years.

Searches for CDOs in the States has been growing by a third. In many cases a CDO is an executive that the CEO has gone looking for outside of the organisation and is adamant about corporate transformation.

The role usually reports directly to the CEO. It could be a vote of no confidence with the CIO, but the organisations hiring the CDOs are say that the CIO is an important role, but clearly they are seeking something the CIOs are not delivering.

Ideally, CIOs should be setting up the technology needed for such digital transformation and reorientating the business, it’s more about becoming the influencer that a CDO is expecting to be.

In many organisations that have taken this path the CIO is totally in charge and there is no hint of a CDO being hired. In other organisations the realisation that both bring talents to bear within business which is being seen as a force to recon with.

Where CIOs don’t have the reach of the CDOs where they have joined in partnership this has resulted in far great speed of transformation. In many respect it has enabled the CIO to shine as the person that has been able to execute, but more importantly implement the outcomes that the organisation so desired.

The hardest challenge is that there is no set job description or commonly accepted role that the CDO plays. As I have researched and spoken with CDOs their roles all differ and this is because of the range of knowledge and experiences they bring to the organisation and the role.

It is early days and we are yet to see if this is a permanent role or will it be short term as our digital environments become more ubiquities within the business. At the beginning of the twentieth century, small factories were considering the removal of the steam turbine that provided your power.

Should you move to obtain power from one of those new fangle power stations. It was cheap, effective and it was the future, but who in the organisation knows about that new energy source. Who understands how to buy it and how to ensure consistent supply, who could explore it potential?

Cue the arrival of the Chief Electricity Officers. As explained in Nicholas Carr’s book The Big Switch, everyone needed a Chief Electricity Officer but just a few years later the role was redundant.

As electricity became more ubiquitous, more a business operation and inconsequential to competitive forces, it was no longer a requirement to have dedicated staff. The development, purchasing and other traditional functions, that of the Chief Electrical Officer disappeared, their job was done.

As with the role of CDO they have their time, but all of our technology is evolving at an increasable speed. Far greater than that of electricity past, as with the Chief Electrical Officer I believe that the CDO will also fair the same. The CIO or the Chief Steam Engineer Officer role evolved, in some ways it was a precursor to the current role of the CIO, that of making all the bits work. I believe that the CIOs role will evolve and subsume much of the different aspects of the CDO and many other roles as we evolve into this digital terrain. 

In my discussions with Cat Maton, Chief Digital Officer for the City of Brisbane, she was struggling with answering this question.

Cat said, “My role is the educational the ambassadorial strategic piece, the CIO comes into implement it. CDOs have come from consulting and marketing they have not come from that tech background. I make no bones about it. Technically, I am not the girl for answering any technical questions, but I can see the picture of what we are moving towards. Someone else has to figure out the what’s and why’s.“

Her role as previously discussed, was more an ambassadorial and externally facing. She felt that the work she has been doing had an indirect impact based on the results she has been achieving externally. More on Cat tomorrow…

That the organisation in better understanding what it was she was bringing to the table, that has started to have an impact and the organisation seek her advice strategically.  Her role is more about exploring the potential of our digital environment, understanding its impact and how it can help the people within the organisation to simplify their work.

Technology was all about making our lives easier, but in reality it has become so complex. The user experience movement (UX) and the design thinking movement all have started to impact what and how we use this technology. As Steve Job’s would say we need to Think Different. It’s not about taking our practices of the past and replicating them in this new world, it’s all about the way we go about it, the way we think.

In my discussions I have found that traditionally and this is not with all CIOs, but traditionally they have come from the floor of the IT room. Today more and more are coming from within the business and have taken on that role of the CDO and bigger picture, but still most are looking at the business based on the technology in hand and maintaining systems and especially legacy, always working to move the business into more effective technology.

The difference being that they face the CIO Paradox’s as articulated in Martha Heller’s book The CIO Paradox. One of the key paradoxes is that CIOs were hired to be strategic, but they spend most of their time on operational issues.

One of the biggest bugbears is that IT is intimately involved in every facet of the business, yet is often considered separate and removed from the business.  These have been the battles of the CIO, mean time we have the CDO stepping in and in many cases specifically addressing what the CIO has not been able to address.

From my perspective as a CIO, I believe that CIOs need the CDO and that it should be a partnership, one that in time will elevate CIOs out of the operational aspects of their work and into a place where they have been work to achieve. The CDO, I believe will in time go and the CIO will reign supreme.

Do you feel the role of Chief Digital Officer in future will merge into the CIO or CMO? Or will it remain distinct in its own right?

I can see that the CDO and the CMO may merge, that the digital will disappear as it becomes more ubiquities within business. Cat said, “May be, I see the marketing role to be very different so I don’t see the CDO merging with the CMO. I believe the CDO role to be evolving into a Chief UX one or Chief Strategy Officer really just that bigger, wider action and leadership piece.

Not the lead honcho but more that person who does have that permission to go have slightly controversial ideas and push buttons and come back and look at that. It would be different in different context. I work in a pretty unique context, technically I am the CDO for the City of Brisbane economic development board so I have multiple customers and remits.

In some of my research it has been said that the CDO has a potential to become the CEO in many situations. Cat said, “I would agree with that because CDOs have to touch every element of the business. And it is that overarching umbrella view. Again that leadership role, with shepherding the flock, being in the position to take the organisation down that transformational path.”


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