Brisbane CDO: Leading the city's digital strategy

We talk to Brisbane's first chief digital officer and the second CDO appointed to a city worldwide, Kieran O'Hea, about what it takes to develop a digital strategy and where his role fits

The rise of digital within all facets of business has been followed swiftly by the rise of the chief digital officer (CDO) role as saviour and administrator. But truly understanding how this position fits within an organisation’s long-term strategy and culture is fraught with complexity.

On the one hand, there are valid arguments suggesting the responsibility of leading digital strategy should lie squarely with the chief marketing officer (CMO), given their ownership of the customer and focus on go-to market. This has raised speculation around whether CDOs are actually CMOs in a new guise, or a distinct part of the marketing function.

There are just as many voices claiming the CDO is the next-generation incarnation of the CIO, fuelled by on-demand technology and the vital importance of data management.

For Kieran O’Hea, City of Brisbane's CDO and only the second in the world to be appointed for a city (the first being New York), his role represents neither the death of the CMO or the CIO, but a new way of driving economic prosperity.

O’Hea commenced his role as CDO in July last year and is tasked with leading Queensland’s capital city to new digital heights. The role was created after economic studies undertaken by the Lord Mayor’s Economic Development Steering Committee revealed a clear window of opportunity to drive Brisbane’s economic prosperity by adopting and executing a comprehensive digital strategy.

He spent his first year building the strategy needed to drive such digital progress. To do that, he orchestrated an audit of 500 Brisbane-based companies, in conjunction with Ernst and Young and the University of Queensland Business School, to delve into their digital capabilities.

“There are digital economic studies at a national and global level, but it’s very difficult to get a feel for the current situation of the city in relation to the whole economy,” O’Hea said. Through the digital capability framework, the group discovered that while 80 per cent of companies in Brisbane claimed to be participating in the digital economy, only 30 per cent were truly engaged.”

The Australian Government defines the digital economy as the “global network of economic and social activities that are enabled by information and communications technologies, such as the internet, mobile and sensor networks”. Success must be driven by a combination of government, industry and community, it stated in its Digital Economy report.

With this in mind, the first of O’Hea’s key targets is to double the number of businesses selling online in Brisbane to 60 per cent over the next five years. His second goal over the same period is to help foster the development of 250 digital-oriented start-ups by assisting to put infrastructure and support mechanisms in place, under the Digital Start-Up Kickstart program.

The third objective is Brisbane’s ambitious Cyber City program to improve the public's experience of Brisbane through digital technology. The program was launched in March and is now in implementation mode.

“I have two roles – one is on the ground, implementing measures that support these objectives such as our SME website, events and tools around digital development,” O’Hea said.

“The second is to promote initiatives. We are looking to establish a digital economics chair for Brisbane with a Queensland University by 2014, and carry out analysis to provide digital capability benchmarks for Brisbane, which we can track and develop over time.

“Ultimately it’s about achieving economic growth through digital and establishing Brisbane’s reputation as a digital innovation hub.”

Climbing the digital strategy ladder

For O’Hea, any organisation faced with developing a digital strategy must first understand what they are looking to achieve by doing an analysis of their business. A small SME for example, may need a digital marketing strategy comprising a Web presence and Facebook page to develop their online identity, while a more mature business will require a holistic digital business strategy around productivity tools and selling online.

The third level is a clear digital transformational strategy and KPIs for each department based around digital achievement, O’Hea said. The fourth and highest level is a digital economy strategy, which is a strategy usually designed for a city, region or country.

“You can subscribe to as much technology as you can, but in order to take your business into the digital economy, you have to integrate your business strategy and your digital strategy and use technology to help achieve your objectives, or else reinvent the company to take advantage of the digital economy,” he claimed.

“It is essential everyone gets into digital but buying a website is not enough. A new website is like a car that comes with a free tank of petrol – you’ll get by for a while, but it will eventually need to be topped up; things are always progressing and you constantly need to invest to keep going.”

O’Hea also pointed to industry figures that show Australian people adopt new technology at three times the rate businesses do, a trend which is rapidly raising customer expectations of digital engagement to new standards.

“We’re at the frontier now and it’s a massive landscape. We’re going to have pioneers, the followers and laggards,” he added.

Background credentials

O’Hea’s digital experience is vast, but followed neither the traditional IT or marketing routes.

He qualified as an electrical engineer but moved straight into the media and broadcasting industry with a series of IT, AV and media content roles. The advent of multimedia and the Internet in the early 1990s opened up new opportunities to develop his interest in the intersection of technology and content. This included working as a consultant with the European Commission developing the first EU funding program for Web projects, and assisting on several large-scale projects including the first EU Jobs website.

O’Hea was then involved in a four-year program which delivered €200m in funding to 200 projects related to the Web, before returning to his home nation of Ireland to work on digital strategy for a number of government departments.

“It wasn’t about marketing but the whole culture and what organisations needed to do to adapt to the digital age,” he explained. “The departments wanted to position themselves with regards to increasingly digitally literate consumers. But without a national digital strategy approach, few achieved this.”

Having seen the appointment of the first CDO for the city of New York, O’Hea set about finding an opportunity to do something similar either for Ireland or the city of Dublin. He discovered the city of Brisbane’s plans to appoint a CDO, and promptly relocated.

Defining the CDO role

O’Hea officially sits within the Brisbane Marketing, which is the city’s economic development board. He is outward facing and tasked with positioning Brisbane’s digital prowess to various stakeholder groups.

While he isn’t tasked with internal council ICT strategy, he is working hand-in-hand on product and services development to help fuel more sophisticated online public services for the council’s customers.

“In other organisations, the motivation may be totally different – a smaller organisation may have a marketing-focused CDO because digital is about Web presence and content,” he said.

O’Hea pointed to research produced by Econsultancy some years ago of CDOs, which found 44 per cent sat within the marketing team, 12 per cent in IT and the remainder in other departments of the organisation.

O’Hea also pointed out many publishing organisations have CDOs primarily focused on content within the organisation.

“Regardless of who sits where, marketing, technology or communications, the issue is organisational culture, examining where innovations occur in business and collaborating across the enterprise to provide improved customer services,” O’Hea said of digital delivery.

“ICT is about ensuring the workforce is totally enabled and expected to provide systems and services based more on digital technology; then there’s client expectations and the move from a supply to demand-driven model. Organisations can plot their tasks to transformation using these elements.”

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Another way Brisbane City Council is promoting digital excellence is by appointing 25 companies as ‘digital champions’. O’Hea advised other organisations to have a similar champion in every department.

“Culture is at the crux of this, not the technology itself,” he added.

“That dictates whether you need a CDO, or to appoint someone else in the company to do the job. As digital becomes a bigger issue for organisations, you may then have to break this down into sub areas of digital strategy.”

Measuring success

O’Hea is working to measure his effectiveness as CDO through quantitative and qualitative KPIs. Quantitative targets include engaging with 4000 SMEs annually, as well as 10,000 more through the newly launched website. On the qualitative front, it’s about the success of programs over given time periods, as well as the increase in the digital readiness of Brisbane over the next five years.

“Less than 50 per cent of companies in Brisbane have a digital strategy of any kind,” he continued. “They need to get one. Whether you are a large organisation, dynamic SME, city council or start-up, you have to look at digital strategy from your own point of view.

“My primary role is to help these organisations to think for themselves. They have to take responsibility and figure out how to adapt their businesses to take advantage of the growing digital opportunities available to them.”

- Kieran O'Hea will be speaking about the Digital Brisbane strategy at this year's Online Retailer Roadshow in Brisbane later this month.

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