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What is a Chief Digital Officer?

At one level the Chief Digital Officer (or CDO for short though not to be confused with the Chief Data Officer) is the senior leader of the corporate digital team. The person holding this role title is most likely to work for the CMO (Chief Marketing officer, formerly known as the Marketing Director) or the CIO (Chief Information Officer, formerly known as the IT Director). We have to thank our US colleagues for this proliferation of Officer titles within what is nowadays known as the “c-suite” (CEO, CFO, COO, etc). To date, the Chief Digital Officer is not to be found in the c-suite but that could change.

“Digital” as a modern phenomenon exploded into UK corporates circa 2011-12 on the back of the rapid growth of smartphone users in the workforce and customer base and our instant love of apps or more accurately the wave of SMAC technologies (social, mobile, analytics, consumerisation and cloud) that are enabling us all to work, shop and communicate however we want, whenever we want and wherever we want. Add to this the promise of better, quicker and cheaper IT services and no CEO can resist.

Chief Digital Officer – CIO Development

Someone has to understand and be held responsible for this wave of revolutionary new technology with its agile methods and rapid delivery and this is the new Chief Digital Officer. So why was this not the CIO? Good question! There are two related reasons why CEOs didn’t automatically turn to CIOs to deliver and operate this powerful new IT.

1. Most CEOs and especially CMOs consider CIOs to be encumbered by inflexible, expensive and underperforming legacy systems and technology. The last thing they wanted was to expose the tender shoots of this revolutionary digital panacea to the rigours of industrial strength quality assurance and risk management: the IT immune system. Hence the birth of the Chief Digital Officer, a person unencumbered by previous corporate IT experience or history.

2. Equally, many CIOs, could remember the heady days of the original dot.com boom when the marketing department last went off on a technology binge that eventually bombed and took years to clean up. Better by far to give the business its head, to suck up and bear the rapid spread of “shadow IT” and to wait until called to clear up the resulting mess. Hence the birth of the Chief Digital Officer, a person unencumbered by long-term corporate career investment, industrial strength IT experience or history of why technology can never be as easy as it looks.

It is becoming clearer now however, that the frailties and overpromising of the dot.bomb era are not being repeated and that the whole IT industry is reconfiguring around the IBM 360 in our pockets known as the smartphone. CIOs are realising that they cannot risk being seen as luddites or naysayers in the era of born on the web competition. They have to smarten up and exert a positive influence whilst they still can. Which brings us to the second part of our examination question: what does good chief digital officer development look like?

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