Are in-house digital teams a huge mistake?

Paul Boag

Does your company need a strong digital team or is that just isolating digital in yet another company silo?

One of the biggest questions facing digital strategists today, is whether we should be recommending a centralised or decentralised approach to managing digital.

This is not just an academic question. It is a question being wrestled with by millions of organisations around the world. In this post I want to share my thinking, starting with what our ultimate goal should be.

In the perfect world

Let me be clear, ultimately I believe that digital should not be centralised in a digital team. There are some strong arguments for this thinking. For a start digital is increasingly becoming an indispensable tool right across an organisation. Like electricity, it will one day become ubiquitous with every function of the business being deeply reliant on it.

Also for digital to work at its most effective it needs to be considered in context. User interactions with digital assets are just a small part of the customer journey. These interactions need to be seen within the context of the overall service we offer customers.

Digital strategy also needs to be so closely tired with overall business objectives that they are almost impossible to separate.

Finally, implementing a successful digital strategy requires a lot of collaboration with many stakeholders across the organisation. It requires a huge range of skills and those are not all going to be available within the digital team without an excessive amount of duplication.

Therefore in a perfect world I would argue that digital teams should be unnecessary. However, we do not live in a perfect world.

A more pragmatic approach

In reality many organisations are simply not ready for a decentralised approach to digital management.

Senior management are not sufficiently aware of the potential of digital to integrate it into their business thinking. Marketing is better, but they have a relatively narrow focus of what digital can offer the organisation.

There is a huge amount of education required before digital can become ubiquitous. What is more, I believe that is going to involve some substantial changes to an organisations structure and culture. This will involve some strong leadership and that is why you need a Chief Digital Officer and associated team.

Of course you could argue that this change should be driven by the existing senior management team. However, I am yet to encounter a team that has the digital experience and vision to make that happen. Senior management teams (by their nature) reflect the organisation they run. The change required needs a maverick to come in and disrupt the status quo. That is where you need a digital lead. Somebody who can make that transition happen.

Digital teams are a transitory requirement

What all of this means is that a Chief Digital Officer and digital team should only be seen as a temporary requirement. Their job should be to help the organisation adapt to the digital economy and integrate digital into every aspect of the business.

How long this process should take will depend on the organisation. Some organisations have already passed through this process and are now introducing a more decentralised structure. However, if that is you, do not jump to the conclusion all organisations are ready to do this or that the ‘digital team phase’ is unnecessary.

Those who support decentralised digital functions, often reference the fact that organisations used to have Chief Electricity Officers. They point out how absurd this is in the light of how ubiquitous electricity is today. They argue that we are making the same mistake with digital.

I would argue that at the time having a Chief Electricity Officer made sense. It was necessary to help organisations integrate the new technology. Without somebody to champion the use of electricity, it would have taken much longer for companies to make the switch. We are in the same place today.

Of course, the route of having a Chief Digital Officer is not without its dangers. Unless it is clearly communicated up front that this role is a temporary one and that the end goal is for digital to become ubiquitous, there is a risk of the position becoming intrenched. Human nature and company politics could lead to digital being siloed, if the ultimate goal is allowed to be lost. That said, I can see no other feasible route of ensuring digital is properly integrated into an organisation. Can you?

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