Chief Digital Officer: Do You Need One, and What the Hell Do They Do?

Paul Boag

Too many organisations have an ad-hoc and fragmented strategy to the adoption of digital. They need to improve coordination, and a chief digital officer can often help.

Does this sound familiar? You work at an organisation made up of a variety of business silos, each doing their own thing. A growing number of these silos are realising they have fallen behind in digital adoption and customer expectations.

The response to this crisis varies widely depending on the silo. Some teams are burying their heads in the sand. Others are madly centralising, building in-house digital capabilities. Still others, are appointing chief digital officers, but then failing to resource them properly.

The one consistency across all of these silos is that nobody is talking or working effectively together.

Once organisations didn’t take digital seriously. Today the issue is that they lack coordination in their approach.

Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

Part of the problem is that organisations are seeking to ‘implement digital” organisation-wide in one go. They look at companies like Google and Facebook, where digital is ubiquitous in much the same way as electricity, and they are seeking to emulate them.

However, there is a big difference between a company being born in the digital era and those seeking to adopt digital into an existing business model. Even electricity wasn’t always ubiquitous, and organisations had to learn how to embrace it.

Replacing Old Channels With New Digital Ones Is Not Enough

In the early days of electricity, organisations appointed Chief Electricity Officers. People who were responsible for helping their organisations integrate electricity into their operations and get the most from it.

For example, it was relatively straightforward for factories to rip out their waterwheels and steam power to replace it with electricity. However, it took over a decade for companies to realise they didn’t need to build their factories by the water. Instead, they could relocate nearer rail links and major roads. They had electricity, but they didn’t realise its full potential.

The same is true for organisations today. They have ripped out traditional advertising and replaced it with digital channels, but they have stopped there. They don’t see the bigger picture, because everybody is looking at things in their silos. That is why organisations need chief digital officers.

A Chief Digital Officer Is a Temporary Measure

Organisations should not see chief digital officers as a permanent position, like say, a chief experience officer (another one of the newer senior roles). Instead, it is a transitional role, just like a chief electricity officer was.

The idea of a chief digital officer will be just as comical in the future as a chief electricity officer is today. Eventually, digital will be ubiquitous, but we need strong leadership for our organisations to get there.

It is also not going to happen without at least some degree of centralisation initially. That is the only way a new culture, operating procedures and skills are going to get established.

Unfortunately, that is an uncomfortable fact for many companies. Individual silos are often reluctant to relinquish control over digital because it has become business-critical. That is why a chief digital officer is such an urgent appointment and organisations have to get it right.

So let’s dive into the role and look at:

We begin with the fundamental question of what a chief digital officer should do.

A grid showing major corporate chief digital officer appointments.
A growing number of large organisations are appointing chief digital officers (source).

What Does a Chief Digital Officer Do?

The work of chief digital officer falls into three primary areas:

  • Providing leadership for digital professionals across the organisation.
  • Setting policies, strategy and governance for the use of digital.
  • Offering training for and evangelising about the potential of digital.

Let me unpack those a little more.

A Chief Digital Officer Provides Leadership

Most organisations have a growing number of digital professionals spread across different silos. Cultural legacy, ill-informed leadership and incompatible working practices often hamper people in their work.

By centralising these people in a global digital team, they receive the support they need to work in a more digitally friendly manner. At the very least an organisation should adopt a hub and spoke model to allow better coordination.

A chief digital officer becomes a buffer between these digital professionals and the rest of the company, allowing a new digitally friendly culture to flourish within the broader organisation.

Only with this kind of protection from a chief digital officer can these new ways of working and innovation emerge free from existing organisational bureaucracy.

Of course, the long term aim will be for these new working practices and culture to become institutionalised, and for that, they will need to become formalised and embedded across the organisation.

A Chief Digital Officer Sets Policy

Often the pockets of digital activity within a company are handled on an ad-hoc basis by those with digital skills scattered across the organisation.

The problem with this approach is that it does nothing to either embed best practice in organisational culture or improve the digital skills of others.

To address this issue, the chief digital officer should set about formalising digitally friendly working practices through the establishment of policies and standard operating procedures.

This kind of best practice is often expressed as design systems, digital principles and digital playbooks. Tools that both formalise working practices and help educate others across the organisation on how they should use digital.

However, these policies and standard operating procedures are just one component of a broader educational programme that a chief digital officer should be undertaking.

A Chief Digital Officer Educates and Enthuses

A chief digital officer and digital professionals are required in the short term to establish digital best practice. However, it is essential to remember that the end goal is for digital to be used ubiquitously by everybody.

There has to be an enormous shift in employee attitudes and skills to reach this endpoint.

Many fear digital because it is unknown. Employees worry that technology might replace them or radically change their job. They are also acutely aware that they do not have the skills to adopt it.

It is the role of the chief digital officer to address these fears and equip colleagues for the digital age.

They achieve this through a combination of communications (in essence an internal digital marketing campaign) and training.

What Skills Should a Chief Digital Officer Have?

As you can see, the role of the chief digital officer is a challenging one that requires a broad set of skills.

A chief digital officer needs excellent leadership skills, both to support the digital professionals across the organisation, but also protect them from other political forces.

They also need strong governance skills to establish new operating procedures and experience in implementing organisational frameworks and policies.

They need knowledge of change management best practice as well as excellent communication skills for enthusing others about digital.

Finally, they need to be able to introduce programmes of training for staff across the organisation.

That is all in addition to the fundamental knowledge of digital and digital strategy.

As you can imagine, finding such individuals is hard. That is why I spend much of my days mentoring people in the role who feel ill-prepared for the complexity it presents.

Often the situation is made worse because they are also not given the support they need to do the job correctly.

What Support Does a Chief Digital Officer Require?

I work with a large number of people who are fulfilling the role of a digital officer, either at an organisational or silo level. They don’t always have the title, but management has given them the responsibility for integrating digital into the organisation.

One of the biggest challenges these people have is that management does not give them the tools to do the job.

A chief digital officer needs three things to be effective.

A Chief Digital Officer Needs Authority

First, they need authority. A chief digital officer needs authority to say no or to implement changes. I’m not saying they should change things with impunity or arbitrarily block others from engaging in digital projects. However, they do need support from other senior managers to make tough decisions and to implement new directions.

As a result, they either need to have an executive-level position or have the full support of an engaged and attentive executive sponsor who gets the importance of digital.

A Chief Digital Officer Needs Resources

Second, they need resources. That means they will need a budget they control and a team who can work under them. Organisational change is a big job and not something one person can typically do alone. They will need to hire, and they will need to invest in technologies to make change happen.

A Chief Digital Officer Needs Autonomy

What is more, they will need the autonomy to make fast decisions when hirings and in budget allocations. Things move fast in the digital world, and the single most significant barrier to digital transformation is excessive procedure and oversight.

By way of an example, I was recently asked to consult with somebody fulfilling the role of chief digital officer for a large pharmaceutical company. He is a smart guy and only needed a few hours of my time. However, the procurement processes of his organisation made engaging me for that support a logistical nightmare.

I worked with another organisation that was attempting to build a digital incubator internally. They managed to get people, budget and office space. However, it took three weeks to get a printer because they had to wait for the I.T. department. The irony was their office was three doors down from a P.C. world with £60 printers in the window.

A Difficult Time to Be a Chief Digital Officer

If I am honest with you, it is a tough time to be a chief digital officer. Although organisations understand that digital is business-critical, they do not appreciate the depth of change required to embrace it fully. To make matters worse, they don’t fully understand what it means to adopt digital or the level of commitment that will take.

It is hardly surprising that 60 to 80 per cent of digital transformation initiatives are ultimately deemed to have failed, and many more do not reach their potential.

So if you want digital transformation to succeed in your organisation, it will need to be spearheaded by an experienced leader. A leader with the authority to make changes and the resources to make things happen. Can you honestly say your chief digital officer has that?

Stock Photos from Sashkin/Shutterstock