Is the CDO a Real Threat to the CIO’s Role?

Is the CDO a Real Threat to the CIO's Role?A shiny new title is on the radar of technology leaders—Chief Digital Officer (CDO)—and it is receiving a lot of attention in the media. Here are just a few recent headlines:

  • ‘The Rise of the Chief Digital Officer’
  • ‘Is 2014 the Year of the Chief Digital Officer?’
  • ‘Chief Digital Officer is the Next Hot Executive Title, Says Gartner’

Cool stuff, and a far cry from the typically downtrodden articles so often directed at the CIO! No wonder many IT leaders want to take advantage of this attractive new option. The title of CIO seems to carry so much baggage compared with the promising, new title of CDO.

Haven’t We Been Here Before?

But before you jump on the CDO bandwagon, I invite you to remember another popular title replacement for the CIO from the recent past: the Chief Innovation Officer. That title, and the quest of many CIOs to own it, caused an awful lot of grief for CIOs who were suddenly expected to deliver Innovation. The net of the situation is that barely a year goes by without the title of the CIO finding itself under siege yet again and ready for replacement by IT execs eager to make their mark on the business world.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking this one is different. That, yes, the title “Chief Innovation Officer” was more than a bit fluffy, but the title of Chief Digital Officer is legit. After all, on the face of it, the name of the title corresponds to a concrete shift in the business and technology landscape. Nearly all business processes are becoming digital (or trying to). And everywhere we look there are new digital services being provisioned by IT for the business and by the vendor community for IT. An all-digital business process, free of geographic or physical ties, is fast becoming the holy grail of IT leaders.

But, hold on a minute … what exactly are we saying here? Supporting the transition of tangible business processes to the digital age? That’s the essence of the CDO’s role? Really? Hasn’t that always been the heart and soul of the CIO’s role? Yes, it has! So what’s so special about the role of the CDO that justifies its unique creation and merits a wholesale charge after it by so many IT execs?

Is Digital Really That Hot?

It seems to me that the attraction of the CDO title has less to do with shoring up the definition of the CIO’s role, and a lot more to do with not wanting to be left behind as the business marches into the sexy digital-enabled business age. No CIO wants to be stuck with nothing to do but run the “boring” operational systems.

In short: IT execs want to be where the action is. And right now, all things digital are hot. And all hot topics attract direct investment and mindshare from senior business executives.

But it doesn’t stop there. As we rush into a world filled with SaaS and cloud-based solutions aimed at enhancing very specific business processes, tech executives fear that the business and its heroic new representative, the CDO, will be entitled to make their own independent technology decisions.

And, finally, there is the crown jewel of the digital gold rush: the development of digital products and services that enhance the core product or service delivered by the company. Every IT leaders wants a piece of that action. It’s almost like being part of the business and no longer just offering a support function. One example is this Hertz Rent-a-Car’s fabulous digital kiosks that place virtual agents all across the U.S. Simply brilliant.

With all this action going on, it’s no wonder that tech leaders want to make sure they own the CDO role. Without it, they fear they will lose control of the IT budget and the most interesting and important technology-related work on the horizon.

Let’s Keep a Sense of Perspective

But before we get swept away in all the excitement, let’s maintain three key points of perspective:

  1. You already own your organization’s digital functions. As CIO, all things digital are already in your purvey right now. So your organization wants to digitize its business processes? Great—make it happen! Nothing’s stopping you. Don’t hold yourself back just because of some cool new name that’s getting tossed around out there.
  2. Today’s sexy digital systems are tomorrow’s boring infrastructure. Once implemented, all these nifty new digital systems will be absorbed into the server farms and become another invisible part of the business’ infrastructure. Soon enough your users will only care about these new digital systems when they aren’t working correctly. Don’t think so? Where is your once-hot Website staff sitting right now?
  3. Crafting digital products and services isn’t what internal tech leaders are supposed to do—and there’s nothing wrong with that. If the products people came to you and wanted a sophisticated digital wrapper product, there’s a good chance you won’t know what to do. No matter how much you might want to be the guy that is capable of developing cool, new iPhone apps and embedded systems, it simply may be out of your technical capabilities. After all, it may be pure R&D software development. And that’s not your job.

I know you probably want to personally solve every tech-related concern in the company, but it just isn’t always going to be you. And that’s fine. Because it doesn’t—not for one moment—take away from the critical role of a Chief Information Officer.

And What Is That Role Exactly?

Being the Chief Information Officer is a huge job, the full breadth of which is embedded right there in the definition of “information” itself—facts, figures, understanding and insight. More specifically,

Information: the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence, obtained from investigation, study, or instruction.

Now compare that with the definition of digital:

Digital: of, relating to, or being data in the form of binary digits.

Which do you want to be—the chief of the digits or chief of the information?

So, instead of picking up a new title (and perhaps inviting even more political conflict), it’s better to bolster and strengthen what you have now and make the role of Chief Information Officer more meaningful and influential in your organization.

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