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Can the CIO be the Chief Digital Officer? Yes if they make the role their own

by Mark P. McDonald  |  April 12, 2013  |  3 Comments

The CIO is more qualified than most for the emerging position of Chief Digital Officer (CDO) as they have an intimate and operational understanding of how the enterprise and customers use technology.  CIO experience is a strength, but in an area that is off target for the way the popular media, among consultants and in many executive teams position the CDO role.  A CIO needs to make the CDO their own if they hope to make their case.

Technology > IT.   The CDO is about how technology will support growth.  The CIO has been about how IT will reduce, control and manage cost.   The two questions are not mutually exclusive but its not immediately obvious that being good at one means that you should be entrusted with the other.  That is the transition CIOs need to make in advocating for their taking the CDO role.

How can someone who has concentrated on cost, consolidation and integration in the ‘back of the house’ be expected to be successful in generating growth with consumer oriented technologies?

It’s a tough question and one that cannot be answers by restating the CIO’s qualification or making the case that the CIO should be responsible for all technology in an enterprise.  Such territorial arguments fail in the face of the need to create growth, innovation and experience – all things that business executives think of when they think of the common CIO.  You need to position your experience, skills and qualifications to prove that you are anything but a common CIO.

The uncommon CIO is a natural CDO

The uncommon CIO has the potential to be a CDO, so making the CDO role your own requires building up a role from your uncommon qualifications.   Fortunately CIOs are uncommon executives and too often the best-kept secrets in the corporate world.

Creating value through technology is common to every one of the different types of CDO roles and the target of making that role your own.  It must be the focus of making the role your own and you the obvious choice as CDO.

Here are a few thoughts on things that can help you think through how you make the role your own.

Emphasize execution

Putting thoughts, ideas and innovation into action is critical for two reasons.  First, creating results through execution is essential to digital technology as there is neither the time nor the repository of proven practices to sit back and wait.

You do not have to be the first mover, but you do have to move and that requires execution.  Second, inertia is the most common complaint business executives level against their CIO so its an issue you have to take head on – often by dispelling the idea that you are old, slow and not concerned about the pace of business.

A good tactic here is to think about the times when you and IT have done little things quickly to solve business and operational issues.  Most CIOs forget about them in the face of large projects, but it’s the constant stream of little things that best reflect the reality of execution in a digital world.

Highlight the value rather than the budget

Concentrate on the stream of channel, product and customer changes you have made over the last 18 months.  CIOs spend too much time and assign too much of their credibility to the size of their budget.  That is the way bureaucrats justify their existence and the CDO should be anything other than a bureaucrat.

Instead of talking about the size of projects, their global and transformational impact, talk about the major business metrics you have moved over time, the stream of business value you are responsible for creating.  Remember that business value of technology comes in changing performance, something it is easy to lose sight of in the daily grind.

Avoid digital isolation. 

The possibilities for digital strategy are great, but too often the can lead to digital tragedy as company’s narrow themselves and miss opportunities.   Narrowing the possibilities is a good idea to gain focus.  Most will seek to narrow by focusing on specific digital technologies – like analytics – and ignore the rest.  This is a common tactic in digital strategy and recommended by among digital consulting firms for obvious reasons.  The problem is that digital isolation too often limits digital value and reinforces existing business models

CIOs recognize that the power of digital technology comes in combination.  Your organization recognizes this too – only too late – when they ask for integration after the fact. You can avoid the disruption and redesign because you know how things come together.

CIOs see mobile, social, analytics as coming together to change products, services, experiences and operations.  Emphasize that in making the case, as you know how to deliver combinations at scale rather than just creating prototypes.

Be inclusive and expansive!

Creating value through technology requires a team approach that results in a blended organization – kind of like the Brady Bunch – from two previously incompatible organizations.  Technology is the face of the brand in digital technology.

The CDO is a connector and creator not an organizational robber baron.  Recognize and make the case for how you view Marketing, Communications, Sales Operations, Product Development come together into a collaborative and virtual core digital organization.  Avoid an approach that adds those roles to IT an approach that tells others you think digital technology is just the same as IT technology.

Down play how you have ‘run IT like a business’

This seems counter-intuitive because digital business is a technology intensive business.  But the nature of a digital business is different than running an internal function in a business like manner.  Quasi P&L’s with internal customers, chargeback/allocation revenues are not the same.  So unless you have a real externally facing P&L its better to talk about how you create value with technology than stake your claim and credibility on this point.

Make the CDO role your own

Organizations looking to create a Chief Digital Officer should seriously consider the CIO as a valid and valued candidate.   Making the case for the CIO to become the CDO requires recognizing that there is a new production function for Technology.  That production function centers on the realities of growth and digital technology where speed is critical, scale is essential and choice.  Speed, Scale and Choice must replace being on time, on budget and on scope because digital technology is not the same as IT technology.

Success with digital technology requires more than strategies for spending money launching social marketing campaigns, ‘boiling oceans of data’ or unplugging the workforce.  Focusing a digital strategy and plan around those investments limits these technologies to an enabling role – warming over the traditional IT model.  Making the CDO role your own breaks through that barrier to engage in leading a real digital business.

 Related posts

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

The Chief Digital Officer, you may not need one.

Chief Digital Officer, What type does your organization need?

Chief Digital Officer – who should they report to?



Category: cio  digital-edge  digitalization  

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

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.

Thoughts on Can the CIO be the Chief Digital Officer? Yes if they make the role their own

  1. […] organización, motivo por el que empieza a tener un nuevo nombre CDO: Chief Digital Officer. Como dice Mark P. McDonald de Gartner: The CDO is about how technology will support growth.  The CIO has been […]

  2. Jonathan Guest says:


    What is your impression of the European Market when it comes to Data Management?

    Do European Comapnies need a CDO?

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