The New Must-Have Executive: The Rise of the Chief Digital Officer

Seems like everyone in business media is talking about the rise of the Chief Digital Officer. I enjoy watching the way media and experts interact with the real world of business, because it’s inevitable that their coverage of and predictions about the rise of this new role in business will affect the reality of the role’s prominence. 

It’s the nature of the observer to change the observed – to paraphrase Heisenberg.

Gartner predicts that 25% of businesses will have a CDO by 2015. The business world has been watching the turf-war tension between CIOs and CMOs for a few years now. In the ’90s and early 2000s, CIO’s were King of the Hill, with the lion’s share of budget and influence over the boardroom strategy discussions. Everything had to go through the CIO if it involved technology. But, software-as-a-service and cloud technology has democratized access to enterprise applications and data, diminishing the importance of CIO’s and technology departments.  

“In the past, everything had to go through the CIO if it involved technology.”

CIO’s are left with the internally employee-focused tools of networks, laptops, and some communication systems. I’ve heard many business leaders on the marketing side accuse the IT department of failing to keep up with the rapidly changing world, and even worse, blocking innovation by trying to defend their tight grip of control. For some easy examples, just look at the bring-your-own-device resistance and the fact that many Fortune 1000 companies still block access to social networks on corporate-owned devices. 

In the current version of the digital world, the business-side can own most of the key technology decisions and drive the discussion without the need for a “legacy” technology leader holding the keys to budget.

Much of that influence has shifted to the CMO as they’ve become the owner of the customer – product, brand, voice-of-the-customer, and revenue – and thus the budget. The CMO’s challenge, similar to the one facing CIO’s a decade ago, is that their historical focus, perspectives and individual strengths aren’t current, and they are falling further behind. 

“The CMO has become the owner of the customer, and thus the budget.”

But, most CMO’s aren’t technologists or futurists – they are marketers. So how do they keep up? More importantly, if they continue to focus on bigger megaphones, marketing messages, advertising, and customer acquisition, they’ll miss the opportunity to transform the entire business.

Digital (or technology, or software, or insert your favorite overused synonym) is eating the world and changing everything. The customer experience starts with listening to the massive sea of “big data” to understand what customers really want but doesn’t end until you’ve answered their customer support question on Twitter. Mobile and social are changing the way we work because it’s already changed how we communicate and how we consume information as a society. Work is trying to play catch up, but it has a bunch of rules and fiefdoms slowing it down.

“Digital” is an overloaded word primed to be poked by Silicon Valley, but there is a clear need for a leader that doesn’t look at the business through a departmental lens. Someone needs to look at the end-to-end business and customer experience through a futurist lens, brave enough to make bold predictions like Nicholas Negroponte and empowered to create change. 

“There is a clear need for a leader that doesn’t look at the business through a departmental lens.”

It’s not about our tools, our tweets or even revenue. It’s not about including digital in the next iteration of our marketing strategy or internal communication strategy. It’s not good enough to just catch up with today because it will all change again tomorrow. It’s about building an infrastructure of improvement and innovation that gets business to the evolving place where we as consumers and employees are already hanging out.

It seems that for most organizations, neither the CIO nor the CMO is ready to transform the way we work at a big enough level, but the world continues to accelerate. It appears the open executive parking space we’ve reserved for the leader who will fill those shoes is the Chief Digital Officer.