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How to ensure your new chief digital officer doesn't cause more harm than good

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19th Aug 2015
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The chief digital officer (CDO) is the latest invitee to the executive washroom and Gartner predicts that by the end of this year, 25% of large organisations will have a CDO in place. The question is no longer about whether the CDO is here to stay, but whether the CDO is about to supplant the CIO in the techie hierarchy.

Those questions seem to suggest that there is an inherent conflict between the CIO and the CDO. But that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, viewing the two roles as contradictory rather than complementary is actively unhelpful.

The rise of the CDO reflects a rapidly changing IT environment. The advent of a social, mobile and app-driven culture, in which the latest advances are found in the consumer space rather than the enterprise space, is a direct contrast to the world of enterprise planning and monumental solutions of only a few short years ago. Cloud solutions, advanced analytics and - above all - vast volumes of data are hugely transformative. Businesses will never be the same again.

The world of the CDO is fast, agile and disruptive. It’s decentralised and democratic. It’s focused on transforming businesses through better use of information, engaging customers and boosting employees. It’s also thoroughly addictive to anyone interested in technology and innovation – and has that elusive ‘cool’ factor to help boost its profile.

But this transformational role is only one half of the business IT story. There still has to be a sound and seamlessly connected infrastructure in place. With so much data now flowing through corporate systems, security is more important than ever. As digital technologies expose businesses to more and more national and international regulations, compliance is getting trickier.

These are the areas in which CIOs and their teams have traditionally built their expertise and it is a mistake to suggest that these operational requirements are in some way less significant or less important than the digital services they support. With a CDO in place, CIOs are able to focus on running operational IT functions while someone else is handling the change management and business transformation aspects of the IT function.

In other words, they are highly complementary and mutually dependent roles. When the relationship is a successful one, the value that the CDO offers the organisation enhances the value delivered by the CIO – and enables IT to support both transformation and long-term operations.

No accident

However, this happily harmonious state doesn’t happen by accident. The clear differences between the two roles can also be the source of potential tension. The CDO, with a remit to engage customers and employees, often straddles the marketing and the IT function. With a marketing hat on, they have quarterly targets to meet and a very short-term outlook. This is in direct contrast to the long-term view of the CIO with their SLAs and KPIs, service contracts and upgrade schedules.

There can also be big differences in approach. Many CDOs in the public sector, for example, may be enchanted with the idea of using Google Docs to encourage sharing and collaboration. But very few went through the pain of preparing for the Freedom of Information Act, and the need to have easily accessible, easily navigated data storage.

At the same time, CIOs may be fretting over their BYOD and authorised access policies, while the CDO is encouraging employees to download apps to whatever computing device is available. As ever, compliance raises its own particular challenges: CIOs that acquire the reputation as the ‘no’ man can find it difficult to engage with employees who only want to hear yes.

These changes are also likely to be reflected in the psychological profiles of the people in the roles. The careful, slightly conservative approach of the CIO and his team, versus the demands for immediate gratification from the CDO’s department.

This is why it can appear that the CIO and the CDO are fighting different battles. And if this kind of thinking persists, that is almost certainly what will happen. But there is huge risks in two different but related departments carving out separate fiefdoms for themselves, and pulling the organisation and its resources in different directions. Equally, there are huge benefits to be had from them working together.

So how do organisations make this duopoly work to their advantage? Our top tips are:

  1. Communicate: It’s the obvious place to start, but successful organisations talk to each other. The CIO and the CDO are no exception.
  2. Share: There’s no room for secrecy or building up silos, so documents, ideas, plans and even the occasional team member can be shared.
  3. Support: Find the synergies within the organisation, understand the different needs of the CIO and CDO teams, and identify the areas where the two functions can support each other.
  4. Benchmark: With different drivers and different timescales, it’s easy for the two to go in different directions. Establish metrics that take both sides into account.
  5. Engage: Present the rest of the organisation with a united front – digital, data, security and networks working together to achieve business goals.

Aingaran Pillai is CTO and founder of Zaizi.

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