What does a Chief Digitial Office (CDO) mean to businesses? How is it different from other similar-looking roles?

A Chief Digital Officer (CDO) is a senior executive profile that focuses on driving growth in a business enterprise or government organization through data digitization initiatives. The CDO identifies all the data and areas that can be potentially digitized to act as a catalyst for business transformation. Many confuse the role of the Chief Digital Officer with that of other c-suite technology roles, whose responsibilities are vastly distinct from that of the former.




Who is a Chief Digital Officer (CDO)?

The profile of CDOs has been undergoing drastic changes in recent days. A few years back, a chief digital officer was expected to bring in digitization at some basic levels in their organization. Now, they play the role of catalyst who drives changes in the outlook of a business through digitization across the enterprise.

The chief digital officer is assuming more and more significance these days as most companies are working or planning to take their businesses to the digital path. A CDO assumes a leadership position and combines business strategy insights with a digital vision to navigate digital transformation across the enterprise.

Like McKinsey & Co. have labeled the CDO the “transformer in chief.”, the chief digital officer is a business role in some companies, and at other companies, a role that is strategically transforming the company’s business by leveraging digital technologies. 


The role of the Chief Digital Officer 

Chief digital officers envision and control the adoption of digital technologies across an enterprise, driving the transformation of their business using technology and data, and guiding and streamlining people, processes, and technology to achieve that digital objectives. Good chief digital officers can visualize a company’s future and buy in other executives to that vision. It’s always about people, processes, and technology and how digital technologie enables them. The people in these roles have to focus on process, on the business strategy, and on how to tell a story to other stakeholders to get there.


Responsibilities of a Chief Digital Officer 

There is no exhaustive list of responsibilities that can be attributed to a CDO. However, the list that Deloitte presents key responsibilities that represent the responsibilities that a typical CDO is expected to assume:

  • Identify the opportunities where emerging technologies can drive digital-driven business models
  • Develop and maintain relationships with teh relevant external stakeholders such as vendors, technology innovators, startups, and industry analysts, and participate in the relevant ecosystems
  • Function as an authority who can strategize the digital technology outlook of the enterprise
  • Bring awareness of digital technologies and their importance across the enterprise from top to down including the board and peer leadership team
  • Strategize business through digital strategy
  • Lead and mentor the development of digital technology capabilities across the enterprise
  • Provide insights into the business drivers and operations using the potency of data
  • Build and empower digital talent by attracting new talents and upgrading and updating existing talents
  • Identify, experiment, evaluate, and adopt new digital technologies that are relevant to the business
  • Run and administer the adoption of digital initiatives across the organization


Chief digital officer (CDO) vs. CIO vs. CTO

The origin of the CDO role may date to at least 2011 when the line that separated the CDO from the CIO and the CTO was thin. Gartner looks at a CIO as someone who leads and manages the people, practices, processes, and technologies within the digital technology or IT function to support delivering the goals of the business. The CTO, on the other hand, manages the physical technology infrastructure, people, and client relations to help organizations meet client expectations. 

That said, either role could steer the enterprise toward digital transformation if the people who hold these positions have business and technology capabilities and skills. Many consider the CDO profile as a kind of merging together these roles to lead the enterprise's digital transformation by focusing on the business operating model, in other words, managing innovation, new product development, and launch.


Where does the CDO fit in the C-Suite?

While there is no hard and fast rule about the positioning of a CDO, in some organizations they report to the CIO. But when a CDO assumes a more strategic and visionary role, they normally report to the CEO or the COO. For some others, in such situations other c-suite technology executives should ideally report to the chief digital officer.

The other scenarios include CDOs working with CTOs on decisions for tech products, and when it is about internal processes, they should collaborate with the CIO. It is critical that the chief digital officer should align with the talent acquisition team on matters related to hiring the talents required for digital transformation. Some argue that the chief digital officer is at least on par with these other senior technology roles and should be able to influence the leadership team across technology and business, to be successful.


What makes a Chief Digital Officer?

Adriaan Bouten, CEO and founder of Digital Prism Advisors, puts across things to look for in a CDO that companies must look for in a CDO.

The first is that CDOs must have great storytelling capability which is why many of them come from non-technology backgrounds like PR, marketing, or communications. However, they must know what technological innovation is relevant where in the enterprise. Next, a good CDO must be an innovator. They must have the skills and be updated in technology products and trends and business ecosystems to navigate through technology and business and balance the line between them. 

CDOs must be able to roll out their digital strategies and transform the entire business operating model. This can be possible only if the person who acts as CDO has a deep knowledge and understanding of digital technology, top-level product management skills, and change management capabilities. Last but not least, CDOs must be influential enough to bring other stakeholders that include the board, other senior executives, relevant staff, vendors, and industry leaders, to their vision.

Most small to medium businesses find it difficult to hire a CDO full-time. The best option available for them is to resort to hiring them through a remote working freelance platform or avail CDO services through platforms that provide Task as a Service (TaaS) for businesses to manage various technology capabilities without making full-time commitments.


CDOs can leverage the "Future of work" platform, the platform model can be referred and be adapted.

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