CDO: Consultant, Fund Raiser, Change Agent, Technologist


Time will tell if the CDO is the White Knight, or next Career-Is-Over Victim

It’s still early days for the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) role. At first glance, it might seem to be a rebadging of the CIO’s or CTO’s job, but maybe it’s something quite different, possibly more like a business architect or transformation consultant. Is it a permanent or transient role?

Here’s a perspective on what CDO might do, drawn from my experience in a traditional bricks-and-mortar firm, with over 100 years of history:

The CDO lives and breathes the business vision: he or she shapes and re-shapes the vision and in parallel, makes it reality

The CDO keeps a finger on the pulse of the current business ‘Center of Gravity’ and is ready to adapt to changing business circumstances.

The CDO must be comfortable with uncertainty and, at the same time, be able to establish projects that deliver incremental change; he or she is always searching for ‘no regrets’ increments that act as proof-points for hypotheses and strategies. Such projects are designed to cope with the many Rumsfeldian ‘Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns’, the blockers for decision-making, and the often quoted excuses for inactivity.

The CDO’s projects and programs are designed, from the outset, with regular course-correction in mind. The CDO must also be prepared to make more radical changes in direction: pivoting strategy to take advantage of emerging opportunities or combat new threats.

The CDO role walks the fine line between management consultant and technologist

The CDO is a master of business change first, and a technologist second. That said the CDO must be adept at spotting useful technology-based patterns, and encourage experimentation: new uses and sources of data, the tools to manipulate or visualize it, and new technical design patterns that suit the highly distributed, autonomous digital world.

The CDO is a passionate fundraiser for, nimble, ‘safe-fail’, projects that encourage bold ideas and nurture innovation.

The CDO is also a champion of architectures that design in the expectation of change from the outset. The days of the Big Up Front Design are over. Digital strategies must embrace the notion of organic, emergent behavior. CDOs with an appreciation of economics, complexity science, and systems theory will have a distinct advantage. They understand that the digitally enabled world is, by nature, adaptive. The old, deterministic, thinking behind traditional ‘ERP-like’ systems, are too fragile, ponderous, and closed-loop in nature. They simply don’t work in a world of massive-scale dynamic interactions between people and their digital agents.

The CDO thinks about: values, trust, services, information, and technology – in that order

The CDO should be able to deliver concise distillations of complex matters. He or she must be a great communicator: an engaging and ‘trust-winning’ storyteller and consummate networker. CDOs don’t necessarily have to be the smartest person in the room. They surround themselves with a strong network of innovators and experts. They possess strong facilitation and active-listening skills, they nurture and amplify ideas and insights from others.

The CDO assesses the impact of the democratization of data, information and knowledge

Today, everyone in the business has a duty to become tech-savvy; those who aren’t will soon become sidelined. So a large part of the CDO’s role is as a coach in technology-literacy. He or she also encourages his colleagues to think about the ‘What’ before the ‘How’ to avoid the rush-to-solution pitfall.

CDOs are also naturals at abstraction who can focus attention on the value-delivering services required. Above all, they champion the dissemination of data, information, and knowledge, internally and externally. This requires regular context switching between stakeholders’ perspectives: those of customers, shareholders, regulators and other ‘duty-of-care’ communities.

‘Going Digital’ affects the whole organization: front, mid and back office. The CDO is a passionate silo-buster; a joiner-of-dots. He or she has a strong grasp of Enterprise Architecture and how to balance pragmatism and short-term goals with the longer-range: stakeholder values, organizational & technology structure, business services portfolio, and their lifetime Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). He works hand-in-hand with the CEO, CMO, COO, CIO and other C-levels to minimize ‘initiative’ misalignment.

What the CDO isn’t

Maybe the best way to describe the CDOs role is to say what it isn’t:

  • A technology cost-center director
  • A marketing/communications director
  • A corporate strategist
  • A project/program director
  • An IT architect
  • A compliance specialist
  • A cyber security specialist
  • An industrial engineer/BPM expert
  • A business analyst
  • A data scientist
  • A social media/web/mobile channel expert.

The CDO must have a well-rounded knowledge of the above disciplines. He or she, however, works with subject experts to make business change happen: herding them all towards the new digital Business-as-Usual.

The CDO is expected to see the world through a fresh pair of eyes and be an agent of change; he weaves ‘digital’ mindfulness into the fabric of the business and its customers and suppliers. His or her mission is to implant, and then grow, an enterprise-wide, data-rich nervous system, which will allow the business to compete by making best use of its digital and physical assets.

I’m sure there are many CIOs and CTOs out there who would claim they’re already acting in that role. In the end, of course, the label doesn’t matter – it’s all about the outcomes.

The question is: will the aspirations of this role prove too challenging for ‘CDOs’ within traditional business? Will the brave individuals in this role become yet another victim of ‘career-is-over’ mentality born from businesses’ frustration with all things ‘IT’?

Business leaders and managers must wake-up to the fact that their world is now digital. They can’t expect an individual to somehow sprinkle ‘digital foo-foo dust’ over the business and believe all will be well. Those companies that are so-called born-digital (Amazon, Google and others) get this. They know that everyone in the business, from the CEO down, is in part a ‘CDO’.

I suspect the CDO position might indeed be transitory. Those companies that truly understand the scale of the transformation will succeed by embedding ‘digital’ in the corporate mindset, and most importantly within the decision-making of the executive team. Those that don’t, will play lip-service to the role until they fall back into old habits: ‘it’s that IT guy’s fault’ blame-game (regardless of how many times we say the CDO isn’t an ‘IT’ role).

Or worse, they wake up too late; asleep while the world changed, their customers took their digital agents to play elsewhere.

This article draws on the author’s experience of working, over the past 8 months, with a ‘Digital Transformation’ director in the Energy sector.

Have the business leaders and managers in your organisation taken ownership of their digital environment? Or can we expect the CDO (or a “CDO like” role) to become a permanent fixture in many organisations?