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Can the CIO be the Chief Digital Officer? Crafting the right role

by Mark P. McDonald  |  April 10, 2013  |  9 Comments

YES, even H3LL Yes.  But just because you are the CIO does not mean that you are the Chief Digital Officer by default.  They are two different jobs with significant potential for synergy/overlap depending on how you think about it.  By the way the CDO role has significant potential overlap with a number of other C-level positions so the decision to make the CIO the CDO is by no means a given.

One in five, specifically (18%) of CIO’s say that they are their organization’s Chief Digital Officer according to CIO responses to the 2013 Gartner CIO Survey.   That is a great start but the role is new so there is room for creation and crafting.

This is the first in a series of posts related to CIOs becoming CDO’s.

Success with digital technology is more than creating an electronic veneer on products, processes and offerings.  It requires more than digital substitution, the old atoms for bits argument of a decade ago.   It requires creating new combinations of digital and physical resources that create customer value and result in company revenue.  That is a digital edge.

CIOs wanting to be Chief Digital Officers need to start by creating the environment that leads to crafting the right role.  The time to act is now, as there is a lot of interest and energy around organization demonstrating ‘digital leadership’ by appointing a digital leader.

Can you standup a candidacy to be CDO?

Start with standing.  Do you have the right to participate and engage in the CDO conversation?  Standing comes from two sources: professional and personal.  It is better to have both, than rely on one or the other.

Professional standing confers the CIO with the role in the organizational discussions and process around creating a CDO.  Is the CIO role positioned in the current organization to be considered for an expanded set of responsibilities?  Chances are if the CIO reports to the CEO or COO or President then yes.  That is the vast majority of cases (80%) according to the 2013 Gartner CIO Survey.  If the CIO reports to the CFO, which is 20% of the time according to the survey, there may not be the organizational standing to have the conversation.   That is not the end of the world, but it removes an arrow from your quiver requiring greater reliance on the CIOs personal standing on the executive team.

Personal standing is the strength of relationships among the executives and the confidence/trust the CEO has in the CIO on a personal basis.  Personal standing gives you the right to have the private conversations, the discussions and explore the possibilities outside of formal organizational policy or protocol.  If you have more personal than professional standing, you need to take the CEO to lunch to talk about digital strategy, how to avoid digital tragedy and how you envision the company’s success in the first decade of digital.

Next look to see if you even need a Chief Digital Officer in your enterprise.  Its not a given and in some cases dangerous to concentrate authority, resources and responsibilities into a single role when digital value requires coordinated and combinatorial solutions that cut across organizational and operational silos.  In cases where there is no need to create a CDO role because the executive team can effectively collaborate across strategy and execution, then get going, pick some goals and start working on your digital edges.

Make the chief digital officer different

Conferring new responsibilities to old roles is not a path to success.  That is organization by search and replace.  Saying you are a chief digital office does not make you one.  Chief marketing officers who redefine their role by replacing “marketing” with “digital marketing” or “channel” with “digital or Omni channel” are no more a CDO than strategy officers who replace “strategy” with “digital strategy”.  Your organization needs more than a CDO in name only.  That type of generic title-replacement surgery did not work well for eCommerce or for Business Processes and it will not work well in digital.

The old adage – if you have seen one, then you have seen them all – should not apply to the CDO.  Each enterprise should be concentrating on building unique digital capabilities.  The new adage should be “If you have seen one CDO role then you have seen ONE CDO role.”  Work with a palette of responsibilities based on the type of role described below.

There are different types of CDO’s with different levels of responsibilities (revenue or policy) and different levels of resources (line or staff).  The different types outlined below are described more fully in a prior post entitled “Chief Digital Officer, What type does your organization need?” 

Those types include:

  • Chief Digital Business Officer – responsible for generating new revenue from digital resources and operating lines of business.
  • Chief Digital Marketing Officer – responsible for developing programs to grow digital revenues via coordinating staff resources.
  • Chief Digital Strategy Officer – responsible for developing and deploying digital strategy from a line position on the leadership team.
  • Chief Digital Champion – leading digital transformation from within the organization.

These role types represent a starting point for making your case to be the Chief Digital Officer.   Take these roles, break them down and blend them into a role that fits your organizational context and your standing as a CIO.  A blend is required as the logic behind the following will not be enough.

Digital technology is technology

The CIO is responsible for technology, therefore

The CIO should be the Chief Digital Officer

The logic above might get you named the first CDO, but it will not keep you there, nor create value for your enterprise.

The current CIO role, like very current role in the enterprise, is missing elements and attitudes of being an effective Chief Digital Officer.  Elements related to revenue, P&L, innovation, product development, sales, pricing, etc. that are not part of the standard CIO role.  The CDO requires working in an indeterminate and volatile environment with different attitudes about delivery, time to market, speed, agility, willingness to fail, learning, tolerance for some waste, etc. that is not naturally part of IT.   That is why its not a simple title transfer, a quit claim deed to go from CIO to CDO, it takes more and that starts with defining the destination by selecting the right role – for your organization and for yourself.

More to come, but what do you think?

Should the CIO see them as the CDO?

Do they have ‘first claim’ on the role?

Is it too late to make the case?

Related posts…

Category: cio  digital-edge  digitalization  

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

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 Can the CIO be the Chief Digital Officer? Crafting the right role

  1. In general, the role of the “Chief Digital(ization) Officer” has been active & relevant since the times of the “Drums That Talk”. In other words: Digitalization, i.e. encoding messages in digital signals or digital signs is as aged as mankind. – s. chapter 1 “Drums That Talk” of the book ‘The Information – A History. A Theory. A Flood.’ from James Gleick –

  2. During several ten centuries, telecommunicating was practiced by digital means like smoke signals, light signals, bells, beacons or flag semaphore. After a pretty short phase of optical telegraphy by means of semaphore lines invented by Claude Chappe, Samuel Morse has succeeded with electrical telegraphy in 1837. This was the beginning of the next stage for the “Chief Digital(ization) Officer” – s. Wikipedia entry ‘Telegraphy’ –

  3. About two decades ago, Nicholas Negroponte has recapped & analysed this topic in his book ‘Being digital’. In this stage, digitalization automats were very common, i.e. devices and/or systems transforming written data or documents to analogue signals or to digital files. Now, the “Chief Digital(ization) Officer” has started managing these devices and/or systems as well as the required media. –

  4. Altogether, digitalization is a constitutive & common element of human culture since its early stages so that the role of the “Chief Digital(ization) Officer” implicitly was common, too. Only the hype has steadily increased, in particular since the beginning of the 19th century when data transmitting over long distances was started and when the amount of transmitted data was increased step by step. Nowadays, almost every information representation can be digitalized and the digitalized items can be processed by digitalizing automats & be transmitted around the globe. Nevertheless, two fundamental disciplines still are overdue: informatiology and digitalogy. Informatiology should deal with the basics of information genesis and handling whilst digitalogy should deal with the transformation of information representations to digital formats and vice versa.

  5. Mark P. McDonald says:


    Thanks for your comments and for reading the blog. You are right that information and communication have been essential parts of the human experience since there have been humans. The idea of a chief digital officer, discussed in this and subsequent posts, is to look at the organizational response to a new class of information and communications technologies (devices and techniques).

    These technologies do represent an acceleration along a continuum of information and communication — more of the same only better, faster, cheaper. But I think they may represent a change in human ability that we are only just beginning to see — I am not talking about human augmentation, but the creation of something new for people.

    That will require new forms of informatiology and digitalogy as you mention and organizationally that may require creating a Chief Digital Officer because at the end of the day, its people taking action, organized or not, that make change happen. Which is why there is such interest in new organizational roles and responsibilities.

    Thanks for your comments and for reading the blog.

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