Just when we thought there might be a peace treaty ending the CIO-CMO wars, up pops another rival:  the CDO.

One of the key findings in “CIO predictions for 2015,” a newly released IDC report, is that by 2020, 60 percent of CIOs in global organizations will be supplanted by the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) for the delivery of IT-enabled products and digital services.

So what exactly is a CDO? Although talk of the position first started around 2003, there’s still no agreement on what the D stands for—some say it actually stands for Data. Essentially, the CDO tends to be customer-focused, and once again, the blame for the rise of the CDO seems to land on the CIO for being hyper-focused on cost cutting and technology and losing sight of marketing.

Earlier in the year, IDC research director Michael Versace described what he saw as the role of the CDO, including three basic attributes:

  1. Organizational leadership and innovation in information management and governance
  2. Business line orientation, reporting to line of business functions including the CRO, CFO, COO, with peer relationships across internal and external IT functions
  3. Spokesman and value conduit for the enterprise

Thornton May, a writer with Sungard AS, notes that the CDO job spans the entire organization (because data now touches every point of the organization) but defines five “flavors”:

  1. Regulatory
  2. Analytics
  3. Data Quality
  4. Governance and Policy
  5. Revenue, or finding a way to monetize the data

 The most effective CDOs, of course, do all five, May says.

The CDO has more focus on technology than a CMO, but less than a CIO. Being somewhere in the middle enables the CDO to focus more on the customer. “There is, without a doubt, value in having a CDO who has developed as a technology executive, but businesses need to remember that technology is ultimately working behind the scenes,” writes CMO Esmerelda Swartz in CMO. “A CDO should be comfortable with putting those solutions to the best possible use, but if this person is unable to convert those solutions into enhanced offerings or an improved experience for the customer, then the technology quickly becomes irrelevant.”

In fact, the CIO’s emphasis on technology actually is what opened up the gap that enabled the CDO to slip in, writes Dan Woods, CTO and editor of CITO Research, in Forbes. “Nobody thinks of a CDO as a geek,” he writes. “Rather, a CDO is supposed to be a Steve Jobs wannabe, someone who sees all the technology and business pieces on the table and puts together a transformational new product, service, or way of working. Most CIOs and CTOs didn’t intend to be the mechanic in overalls who deals with the complex stuff nobody wants to pay attention to. But too often, for many reasons, that is what happened.”

Under this new structure, the CIO is the one who gets stuck actually implementing the details of all the pie-in-the-sky ideas that the CDO comes up with. Unfortunately, that very ability to focus on the details is what comes back to bite the CIO—because he’s thought of as being too focused on the technology!

Unsurprisingly, critics were quick to pounce on the new prediction.

Here we go again: The CIO is relegated to ‘keeping the trains running on time,’” writes Gil Press in Forbes. “Shouldn’t CIOs take charge of digital governance? Why not entrust CIOs with finding new insights in the data or uncovering the new digital business opportunities? The answer seems to be that they are not considered to have the right experience and skills to lead the ‘digital transformation’ of the business.”

“CDOs, will take on the more strategic (and fun) role of applying digital technologies—mobile, cloud, analytics, social, robotics—to boost revenue, maximize profits, and delight customers,” writes Rob Preston in Information Week. “CIOs = back office. CDOs = front office. It's 1989 all over again.” He disagrees, however, with IDC’s prediction, saying instead that CIOs will grow to take on the CDO role as digital becomes more common.

In fact, Larry Dignan of ZDNet says he’ll be surprised if 60 percent of global companies even have a CDO in five years. “The CDO is a transition role,” he writes. “Every company on the planet will be digital and that means most execs will lean that way. A CDO position when everything is digital is bit redundant.”

Interestingly, though, observers note that CDOs tend to come from the non-tech part of the business. “Most of the time, CDOs are people who had marketing, PR, or communications backgrounds or other roles that were focused on the customer,” writes Woods, adding that compared with CIOs and CTOs, they are typically more likely to be women, and more likely to be older—both demographics that have felt less welcome in technology.

Wouldn't it be ironic if the people who have traditionally been excluded from the tech sector ultimately take over? 

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