Stop arguing about who owns digital. It doesn’t matter in the long run.

Paul Boag

We seem preoccupied with the question of where digital should sit in our company structures. But that isn’t the question we should be asking.

One of the most common questions I get asked in my work on digital transformation is ‘who should digital report into’? But in truth it doesn’t matter that much. It is not the question we should be asking.

But before I dive into the real questions, lets look at the options and ask why organisations are so obsessed with the issue. To do that we need to understand how attitudes towards digital are in a state of flux.

The IT / Marketing struggle

In the early days of digital few in business understood it. People knew it was starting to matter and was technology related. But it wasn’t exactly business critical. With that in mind most organisations put it with IT. After all they dealt with everything else technology related.

But overtime it became obvious that the web was a valuable marketing tool. It’s profile grew, as did the organisational understanding. Many organisations started to move the ownership of digital across into marketing. But in other organisations this became a point of contention.

Unfortunately some organisations are still stuck in that battle. They are looking for a way to fit digital into an existing business silo. But this will not work, because digital is something new. Something that doesn’t fit with business as usual. It is something that touches almost every part of the organisation.

What then is the answer?

Should you appoint a chief digital officer?

Some organisations have realised how profound the impact of digital is on their customers and in turn on how they operate. Their response is to appoint a chief digital officer. A c-suite position whose role it is to integrate digital into the heart of the organisation.

There is some validity in this approach. It recognises that digital should be a ubiquitous part of the organisations operation. It also recognises that digital will need to reshape the fabric of the business and so needs c-suite support.

There is also some precedent for this approach. When electricity first arrived some appointed chief electricity officers. An appointment designed to help integrate electricity into the business. This must have worked because electricity has become completely invisible to us, such is its level of ubiquity.

But others argue that digital is about a shift in consumer behaviour. As a result, they argue, we should have a chief customer officer, not a chief digital officer.

The argument for a chief customer officer

The argument for a chief customer officer is a strong one. Customer behaviour has shifted in the last few years, due in a large part to digital innovation. It also makes more sense to focus on the customer, rather than the technology.

Like digital, improving the customer experience touches every part of an organisation. This means we will need to change the way we operate. So it makes sense to have a c-suite appointment. Somebody to coordinate the close collaboration across business silos.

But is that really the right way to go? Is this not just creating a new business silo? Shouldn't both customer experience and digital integrate into the heart of the business? Well the answer to that depends on organisational maturity.

It is all about maturity

Whether you talk about customer experience or digital we can all agree that these should be a ubiquitous part of what we do everyday. We don’t think about using electricity and neither should we consider digital a specialist skill. Equally, we should be baking customer experience into our organisation's DNA.

Companies that get digital and customer experience don’t have departments dedicated to these functions. Everybody is responsible.

But not every company is at this level of maturity. In fact few are. For many, they need somebody to champion the adoption of the customer experience and digital mindset. They need somebody responsible for providing leadership in these areas and driving change.

As the company matures in these areas those roles will become redundant. In much the same way we no longer have chief electricity officers.

We should be more concerned with maturing in these areas, rather than debating where they sit. As I said at the beginning it doesn’t matter where digital reports. There are other more important questions.

The questions that we should be focusing on

Put digital and customer experience wherever you want. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that wherever you place it you can positively answer the following questions.

Does digital have strong executive support?

It doesn’t matter if digital sits under IT, marketing or somebody else. What matters is that it has an executive sponsor who appreciates its value and understands its role.

Digital and indeed customer experience needs executive support if it is to flourish. Support that will…

  • Protect it from policies and politics which prevent it's adoption and integration.
  • Ensure it has a voice at the highest level of the organisation.
  • Champion changes to the organisational structure to better support its integration.

What job title that person has is a secondary consideration compared to the role of being an executive champion.

Is the digital team more than a service department?

That champion also needs to ensure that digital staff are providing leadership in their area. They cannot simply act as a service department.

Because digital started off in IT, people who work in that area are often seen as support staff. Digital teams spend most of their life implementing the ideas of other departments. This despite the fact that these departments do not have a deep insight into the capability of digital.

Internal digital teams should be more than an internal agency. They should not just be taking briefs and delivering products. They should be providing leadership and direction in the digital field.

But this team also needs to keep an eye on the end goal.

Is there a long term plan for making digital ubiquitous?

Remember, we are seeking to make digital ubiquitous. That means the digital team cannot work in isolation. It needs to be working collaboratively with every part of the organisation. It should be teaching colleagues how to take ownership over their digital services.

There needs to be a long term plan from within the digital team for making themselves redundant! A plan of education and empowerment for every part of the organisation. We are not building another business silo.

Why digital doesn’t fit

The reason organisations don’t know where to put digital is because it should be everywhere. We should be embedding it in every part of the business, not a single department. But getting to that point is a journey. A journey that can start anywhere you want. Just be aware it will involve some big changes as your organisation matures.