Gartner Blog Network

Chief Digital Officer, What type does your organization need?

by Mark P. McDonald  |  March 12, 2013  |  9 Comments

Everyone is talking about the need for a chief digital officer (CDO).  The CDO role has come into fashion as a demonstrable sign that your organization is serious about digital technology.  The topic of what is the chief digital officer their role and responsibilities is full of energy and attention.  It is rare to create a new ‘C’ level role with the opportunity to redistribute responsibilities among senior executives.

Discussions regarding the Chief DIGITAL Officer are remarkably similar to past discussions about the Chief PROCESS Officer.    The CDO role may go the way of the CPO, but that is a topic for a different blog post.  The bigger question is assuming your organization decides to create a chief digital officer,  what type of digital officer do you need?

Chief Digital Officers are not the same, nor are the created equal.  The role should be specialized as creating a digital difference demands specialization.  Using a quick and dirty diagram, shown below, we can identify four types of Chief Digital Officers and the criteria around thinking through which one is best for your situation and organization.  Note this may not be the right diagram, welcome your comments, but it provides a way of thinking about how to specialize the role.


There are two main criteria – Revenue/Policy and Line/Staff that position the CDO role.  Addressing these axis helps determine the type of CDO your organization needs.

What is the goal of digitalization? 

Revenue and Policy define the extremes of the vertical axis. The answer to this question describes digital expectations in terms of revenue. Organizations can apply digital technology  to generate revenue or to improve operational performance.  This is the difference between ‘being’ digital and ‘feeling’ digital.   Investing in digital technology to grow revenue means that the CDO role has a revenue target as well as the resources and responsibilities to deliver that revenue target.  In the alternative, the organization pursues a digital substitution  strategy using new technology to do old things differently and better.

How does the organization lead transformation?

The response to this question assesses your approach to organizational change.  Does your organization transform along P&L or Organizational lines that allocate resources to specific business units, channels and geographic operations?  If you do, then the organization leads transformational change via focusing on divisionalization that separates digital from the rest of the enterprise.  The alternative is to make being digital everyone’s responsibility by establishing the CDO as a staff function working at the executive level across the entire enterprise.

Revenue/Policy and Line/Staff describe four different types of Chief Digital Officers

Responding to these two questions describes the four possible types of Chief Digital Officers shown in the graphic below.  Each type is a digital officer in their own right, but with their own focus, responsibilities and accountabilities.  These types represent the range of CDO’s I have encountered so far.

Note the goal statements are consistent vertically as the revenue vs policy decision forms the dominant dividing line.  Each of these CDO types is summarized below, which makes for the length of this blog post.

The Chief Digital Revenue Officer meeting digital revenue responsibilities via leveraging line resources.

A CDO who is directly responsible for generating revenue from digital resources via leveraging line resources is a Chief Digital Revenue Officer.  This executive builds and operates the various digital edges required to create accretive revenue growth.  This is the Chief Digital Officer as senior business unit executive often running a digital operation alongside traditional products services and operations.

Revenue responsibilities are rather clear and straightforward but measuring them in a blended world of traditional physical, IT and digital technologies can be complex.   There are multiple ways to measure digital revenues.  Measuring unique digital channels, like selling products or services via mobile applications, is one way to account for digital revenue contribution.  Another approach is to look at the participation/contribution of digital resources in growing the organizations customer relationships and revenues.  For example, do customers who engage with you via digital means have larger relationships?  Do customers targeted and served via big data/analytics generated context have a shorter sales cycle, larger average purchase, greater retention, etc.?  A CDO responsible for revenue carries some type of direct revenue metric.

The line management responsibilities of the Chief Digital Revenue Office reflect a concentration of resources on building, fielding and extending digital capabilities somewhat apart from existing operational units.  This is the realm of the digital business unit, which similar to eCommerce business units of the past, bring focus to digital transformation only to be re-incorporated back into the business as the entire organization goes digital – just like it all eventually went online.

The Chief Digital Champion runs the resources that deploy digital strategy

Digital technology requires organizational transformation that often requires being led by a champion.  The Chief Digital Champion Officer has resources at their disposal to implement digital policies and plans.  Their focus is on creating new digital capabilities in the field.  As the Champion, they lead a ‘company within a company’ following a policy dedicating resources to disrupt the core business.

The Chief Digital Strategy Officer commands policies from a staff position.

Any strategy officer employs policy power and a staff role to facilitate, define and lead the organization in executing new strategies.  A chief digital strategy officer is the latest incarnation of such a role.  Supported by a small set of staff resources, separate from business units, the strategy officer defines a digital vision, goals and objectives.  These form the policies projected from the headquarters across the enterprise.

The Chief Digital Marketing Officer

The final CDO role – chief digital marketing officer – is familiar to many and may be the type of CDO in your organization.  The Chief Digital Marketing officer has revenue responsibilities in terms of building demand, brand and a growing customer experience.  The CDO often is responsible for digital channel operations and content.  The deliver that revenue via marketing programs, projects and support services to generate demand with demand fulfillment remaining in the business units.

If you have seen one Chief Digital Officer, then you should  have seen one Chief Digital Officer.

Creating a specialized role is a sign of importance.  When business processes became important, we created the role of Chief Process Officer.  When eCommerce was hot, there were similar roles.  We repeated this approach for IT security, compliance, risk and other responsibilities at lower levels.  In this regard the move toward wanting a Chief Digital Officer follows a rich tradition of “c-leveling up” roles in response to trends and technology.

Process, risk, security, compliance and digital technologies share an aspect in the sense that they present complex and cross-organizational issues that require a coordinated response.  Organizations can define and align the CDO  role and its responsibilities generically – for example taking the job description of a corporate strategy professional and substituting the word “digital” for corporate i.e. develops corporate vision becomes develops digital vision, etc.  That defines a role, but I am not sure that addresses the challenge.

You may not need a chief digital officer to find success with digital technologies.  Having a CDO role is no guarantee of success. Creating a new ‘chief’ does guarantees creating a consolidated buying center and target, particularly for those chiefs with generic job descriptions.

Specializing the role, responsibilities and resources of a Chief Digital Officer creates the clarity, concentration and accountability necessary to achieve results rather than to engage in digital activities.  You cannot expect more if your CDO is the same as everyone other CDO.  Specialize and specify the role you need to find success and create a real digital difference.

Related Posts

The Chief Digital Officer, you may not need one.

Digital strategy or digital tragedy

Digital Strategy Does Not Equal IT Strategy – Mark P. McDonald – Harvard Business Review

Digital makes 2013 an important year for technology

Digitalization creates new dimensions for disruption

The Digital Edge: Exploiting Information and Technology for Business Advantage: Mark P. McDonald,Andy Row…

Category: digital-edge  digitalization  hunting-and-harvesting-in-a-digital-world  leadership  management  strategy  

Tags: chief-digital-officer  digital-edge  digitalization  digitization  leadership  strategy  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Chief Digital Officer, What type does your organization need?

  1. […] 6. Gartner Blog Network: The blog of Gartner, the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company. The blog is devoted to publishing the personal viewpoints of some of the top researchers and consultants in the company. Highlight: Chief Digital Officer, What Type Does Your Organization Need? […]

  2. Angie Tarasoff says:

    It seems that every time I turn around a new Chief Something Officer role has been created. After reading this post, I checked Wikipedia for a list of corporate titles – 64 different “Chief” titles came up.

    While I recognize that not all roles will be represented in every organization, it does seem that there is a trend to growing the C-suite. At what point does the sheer mass of the group result in loss of effectiveness?

    I recognize that those of us who work in IT have a vested interest in ensuring that our perspectives are heard “at the table,” and that some of us (not all of us) are able to add value to those conversations and hopefully improve decisions. However, I’m not convinced that we need a Chief Something Officer for absolutely everything.

    At some point, don’t we have so many Chiefs that the title is simply meaningless and nobody knows who makes what decisions?

  3. […] Chief Digital Officer, What type does your orgnization need? […]

  4. […] Gartner’s Mark McDonald proposed four “types” of CDOs as defined by revenue accountability and organization. He made the excellent point that the “digitization” process will vary with the type of organization, how it currently uses digital technologies and what kind of business it is/how it generates revenue. Here I’ll touch on Mark’s model for four types of CDO before suggesting how each can best use social business for organizational transformation. The “often used by” parts are my interpretation. I encourage you to read Mark’s post. […]

  5. @Mark, thanks for pioneering thought on CDOs, which I referenced widely here []. What are you seeing in terms of how the Chief Digital Strategy Officer and the Chief Digital Champion Officer implement strategy? In my experience, since “social” is hyper-interactive and dynamic, strategy without getting your hands dirty up past the elbows has little effect, and agile-style iteration is the way to business results. I think another trap is putting “digital strategy” under one person; if the org has significant digital operations (i.e. ecommerce, analytics…), that might prevent the CDO from perceiving the full scope of transformation opportunities. I think your horizontal axis implies this, was that your intent? Thanks again for a great contribution.

  6. […] Chief Digital Officer, What type does your organization need? […]

  7. thank you Mark for this piece. Insightful.

    To complement the above comments; it will extremely helpful to understand better in a benchmark like review the industry and functions that have put in positions a DO roles? – with highlights on the governance arrangement setup and the business focus objectives of the roles this for fortune 1000 firms.

    I am interesting to understand in financial sectors the number of appointed director level resources that lead digital strategy or execute the delivery of a digital strategy.

    I will appreciate if you could point me out to references on this.

    Thank you


  8. […] in einer Führungsaufgabe abbildet: “Chief Digital Officer is the next hot executive title”, schreibt das US-Marktforschungsunternehmen Gartner und zeigt damit auf die Bedeutung des neuen Berufsbildes in Hinblick auf Digital […]

Comments are closed

Comments or opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors only, and do not necessarily represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management. Readers may copy and redistribute blog postings on other blogs, or otherwise for private, non-commercial or journalistic purposes, with attribution to Gartner. This content may not be used for any other purposes in any other formats or media. The content on this blog is provided on an "as-is" basis. Gartner shall not be liable for any damages whatsoever arising out of the content or use of this blog.