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London is searching for a chief digital officer – do you need one too?

3rd May 2017
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London mayor Sadiq Khan has formally started his search for London’s first chief digital officer (CDO).

Having committed to the appointment of a CDO in his manifesto, the mayor aims for the successful candidate to encourage adoption of standards around data and service transformation; help to deliver public services in more effective and accessible ways; increase digital inclusion in the city; and ultimately improve growth in the sector. 


Carrying a salary of over £100,000, the appointment will be a significant one. And yet the role of ‘chief digital officer’ was almost unheard of at the beginning of the decade.

“Ten years ago the job of chief digital officer simply didn’t exist,” notes Dale Lovell, chief digital officer and UK managing director at ADYOULIKE. “Even as late as 2013, there were only 500 CDOs across the globe. The ‘digital’ aspect of organisations was also something that was split across multiple people.”

Statistics suggest that CDOs are still a rarity.

A report from PwC last year charts the rise of this position, and suggests that only 6% of organisations presently hire a CDO.


Part of the reason this number is so small is because CDOs are predominantly appointed at larger organisation.

Up to 9% of organisations with 10,000 employees have appointed CDOs, compared with up to 3% for smaller organisations.

CDOs are predominantly appointed at the more consumer-oriented industries where digital has already had a transformative effect, according to the research. 13% of organisations in comms/media/entertainment have appointed CDOs, for instance. 


So why appoint a CDO?

According to Mike Hughes of PeopleTECH, digital transformation requires a CDO.

“If a company has digital embedded in its very DNA, then there is no need for a CDO. But few companies are that advanced, so a CDO becomes one of the most important roles in the entire organisation,” he explains. “Instead of digital transformation falling under the remit of the CIO, CMO or even a COO, having a CDO in place means there is a focus on integrating digital throughout the business and it prevents digital becoming more isolated than it already might be.”

Robert Allen of Smart Insights, adds: “Digital officers are required when the business is going through digital transformation, but are a transitional role. Once all aspects have fully embraced and optimised the use of digital technologies, the need for a chief digital officer will evaporate. Railway companies don’t need chief diesel officers to manage the transition away from steam trains, because they don’t use steam trains any more. Therefore, whether or not your business needs a CDO will also depend on whether digital is the norm or not in your organisation.”

Others, however, are less convinced about the need for a CDO.

“Much like putting your head under the covers and ignoring the importance of digital all together, hiring a CDO isn’t the cleverest or most strategic move,” says Chandar Pattabhiram, CMO at Marketo. “It signals to both employees and the wider public that no one in the company really knows what to do with digital. This approach risks undermining the expertise that has evolved throughout the business and creates the perception internally that digital needs to be siloed away and solved somewhere else.

“Further to this, as we settle into this new digital world and digital extends across all customer touchpoints, a CDO is like hiring a chief Excel officer or even a chief typing officer – it’s foolish to put one person in charge of something that everyone must own.”

He adds: “It’s been well documented that the measure of a CDO’s success is when the role becomes unnecessary. Therefore, any well-functioning digital company doesn’t have a need for a CDO, and therefore, in the years to come, neither should any organisation. As digital becomes inherent to all aspects of an organisation and its relationship with customers, there will be no longevity in the role or function.”

Despite this, research from IDC suggests that 89% of global decision-makers see the future of their digital strategy being placed in the hands of a CDO.

So is the mayor right to appoint one in London? Lovell certainly believes so.

“With the world increasingly adopting a ‘connected’ lifestyle, with little downtime from their digital devices, the role is now essential, not only for companies but also for government and regional authorities,” he says.

“The next ten years will see a rapid digitalisation and automation of many key services; with public expectation around the services they receive increasingly built around digital infrastructure. It's a big challenge to change London, but one that needs to happen now.”

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