Digital Transformers – Fashion or Fad

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The advance of digital has already radically transformed the business environment – a digital wave is sweeping through every industry, organization and culture.  Customers and staff expect businesses to be digital by default and there is a race to recruit the talent needed to transform and evolve processes, people management and business models. One role, the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) – yet another addition to the C Suite – is growing in popularity and leading the charge to a digital future.  Some liken this role to that of an internal consultant – a temporary catalyst, driving rapid change – others argue that CDOs are here to stay.


Digital Business – Act Two

Gartner describes Digital business as a new business design that connects people, businesses and things to drive revenue and efficiency.  The ability to connect people and businesses with “things” and to connect things with other things is driving this pivotal stage of the digital journey.  Billions of connected “things”, such as your car, home appliances and even the groceries in your refrigerator, will be connected to other things and play bit parts in this digital revolution. 

In fact, Gartner says that 6.4 Billion connected “things” will be in use in 2016.  Organisations of every size are racing to put in place strategies and leadership to compete in this rapidly changing digital environment.  Mature digital natives with experience across business strategy, technology and marketing, together with people and entrepreneurial skills, are taking leading roles as the digital revolution unfolds.


Digital Transformers’ DNA

The CDO is part catalyst and part enabler – their responsibilities are still evolving, but in addition to being the digital expert, the CDO must also be an experienced general manager.  He or She is tasked with pursuing bold visions, is comfortable working across every part of the organisation, is adept at developing and articulating strategy, and knows how to build and develop new opportunities.  CDOs may also need to be masters of governance, analytics, risk mitigation and compliance.

CDOs need to influence the highest leadership ranks and they may sometimes be perceived as disruptive.  Needless to say, they certainly need to be determined.  A recent study, by Russell Reynolds, reports that aspiring CDOs should be innovative and disruptive, with a bold leadership style.  CDOs also have to understand products and services, profit and loss, organisational structure and how industries work, from regulation to public perception.

Digital Transformers’ To Do List

Some argue that Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and/or Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) are the natural heirs to the digital future –  if not alone, surely together they should be able to hack it.  But CTOs, by their very nature and training, are more likely to be busy “keeping the lights on” and looking after existing technology – their skills, experience and training are less about business strategy and growth, and more likely to be centred around technology.  Mary Mesaglio, VP at Gartner refers to CDOs as “Ninjas”.  Traditional IT people, like the CTO, behave according to a set of rules, she says. The Ninja, as a highly unorthodox fighter, was better at dealing with an unconventional enemy.”  She notes that it is difficult for the two roles to be performed by one person.

CMOs are busy getting used to their relatively new accountability for P&Ls, and exploiting analytics and big data to drive measurable results.  Also, Digital business is not just about more and better customer interactions powered by more sophisticated and abundant technology resources; it goes well beyond websites, social media, apps, etc.  Instead, think about how organisations can radically change their businesses to better serve their clients, and improve their performance and reach.  Success in this new digital environment demands a review of processes, workplaces, talent engagement, products and services, channels, and entire business models.  It requires focus and bold leadership because it affects every part of the business.

CDOs are responsible for the most appropriate adoption of digital technologies right across the business and therefore, they must bring a rounded set of strategy, technology, marketing, operations, finance, people and business development skills to the C Suite.  They need to have excellent business insight, be in tune with their external business environments and be capable of acting boldly and swiftly, relatively unencumbered by “business as usual”.  Of course, they may eventually start, manage and hand-over more than a few pet projects, but they must not be distracted from their main task.


Insiders and Outsiders

Some think the CDO’s role may be short lived because they are effectively agents of change, internal consultants on a mission, with a clearly defined end goal.  Of course, trusted consultants often have the full support of the CEO – in fact, as a former strategy consultant, working for large complex organisations,  we were often best positioned to gain support for innovative and disruptive change, precisely because we were not insiders.

However, the CDO cannot achieve their goals and realise the true potential of digital, as an outsider, a hired gun on a mission.   The digital mission is still unclear, precisely because digital is still evolving. CDOs need to flex and adapt as their organisation, competition and environment changes.  In addition to providing clear strategic guidance, they must actively innovate and lead the disruption of the status quo, at the right time.  Working in close collaboration with other members of the C Suite, they must boldly lead and implement sustainable and sometimes radical change that does not guarantee a payback.

Digital business excellence demands much more than a shot or two of strategy advice, delivered by outsiders.  In fact, the rapid pace and rate of digital change is such that the CDO’s role will need to continuously adapt to address opportunities and challenges – based on current experience, they are likely to be with us for a long time.  

In future, digital will be an integral part of any business – digital will become “business as usual”.  If the business of tomorrow is “digital by default’, if every part of a business is digital, then the CDO’s role should no longer require a seat in the C Suite.  After all, electricity was once a revolutionary force but we don’t need “Chief Electricity Officers”. In fact, some would argue that the CDO’s job is really an extension of the Chief Strategy Officer’s (CSO’s) role.   At some point in the future organisations may no longer make the distinction between  strategy and digital strategy – organisations will embrace digital as an integral part of their strategy,  with all aspects of strategy led by the CSO.

According to Gartner  the number of CDOs doubled in 2014, and according to e-Marketer the number of CDOs will double in 2015 to 2,000 worldwide.  The digital revolution is just getting started and the CDO’s job and other associated roles will endure and evolve to address the requirements of the digital age.


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November 03-2015, Written by Segun Osu Leave a comment

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