The role of chief digital officer: Destined to become redundant?

Digital leaders at the Chief Digital Officer Forum debate the significance of the role and its impact on CMO and CIO alignment

The primary job of the chief digital officer could be to make themselves redundant, according to a panel of digital specialists.

Speaking at the Chief Digital Officer Forum in Sydney, former RSPCA chief digital officer, Christian Bowman, said he’d actually seen the importance of his own role within the not-for-profit diminish after striving to bring the IT and marketing functions closer together.

Bowman said he was appointed the first chief digital officer after RSPCA’s CEO saw his comments on LinkedIn about the role being created to remove internal barriers and battles happening between IT and marketing over digital channels.

He noted he was also the first chief digital officer to be appointed in the sector.

“Having someone appointed by the board with the endorsement of the CEO to start that transformation process was a good way to minimise these battles and get something done,” he said. “It was clear that a lot of digital transformation had to be diffused back into the business, which meant I started to step back when people starting getting onboard with the transformation process.

“I then took over the brand, as it became more of a communications concern across the board, as opposed to just digital channels. My impact had diminished over time and that was a good thing.”

Leanne Fry is the digital leader at Fair Work Ombudsmen and has worked both as a CIO and a marketing and communications manager. She compared bringing digital into the business to when ecommerce was first introduced, pointing out that ecommerce teams were often initially set up as a distinct department before being rolled back into the core business function.

“It [my appointment] was really to provide the resources the organisation needed and to enable us to do two-speed or bimodal IT,” she told attendees. “IT still chugged along, but we could match the business.

“When we set the digital function up, one business customer of mine joked that they’d been doing agile for ages and it was nice that we had finally caught up. But there is a perception now that we have that agile component in the business to match what they need.

“Our journey is to train up those teams and create that capability in IT to move between BAU and agile delivery as needed.”

Fry's role formally ends in December.

Bowman believed both CDOs and CMOs have to be careful around articulating the value they provide to their organisations in the future.

“We’re hearing a lot about the idea of customer experience from start to finish, and from awareness to advocacy. That’s all encompassing, and not siloed to front- or back-end,” he said. “A lot of conversations I believe need to be had around the relevance of CMO, relevance of the CDO, and also the rise of the chief customer officer. Should that be a separate role or the CEO?”

Fry said many US organisations have merged the CMO and CIO functions as a way of coping with the digitally oriented nature of customer engagement and product delivery.

Expedia director of technology, Scott Horn, said the travel group doesn’t have a dedicated chief digital officer.

“The idea of closing the gap is an important point – for us, because of what we do is already digital, the closeness between the business component and technology is there,” he said.

“Depending on how wide the gap is, you need to spend time closing it. Once it’s closed, I’m not sure what happens next. Will the role be required? But that could be said of a lot of other chief-level roles as well.”

While astounded by them, Bowman also pointed to examples in the US of chief digital officers becoming the next CEOs of business because of their cross-functional, collaborative skillset.

“If the CDO can corral the whole organisation and steer them into a direction and be successful at it, that’s a skill a CEO needs to have,” he commented.

What could hold them back, however, is the CDO’s financial aptitude, and Bowman admitted the financial side of business is a bit of a blind spot for him personally.

“CEOs need strong financial acumen and I don’t know many CDOs with those capabilities,” he added. “That comes with years of experience as well as technical expertise.”

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