We need a cross functional champion of business transformation, not a super CIO

It’s a pity that we have to give a name to the new phenomenon of Chief Digital Officer. Because by naming it, there is a risk we put it in a box.

The role of Chief Digital Officer or CDO has become the latest must-have in the c-suite for any forward-thinking corporate.

The CDO is tasked with integrating marketing, IT and CX, to achieve digital transformation (although really it is just transformation, using newly available tools and technologies).

The role has arisen because the goalposts have changed – the accepted way of doing business since the Second World War is breaking down. The internet, mobile, AI, disintermediation, disruption, low cost business models all provide a fundamental challenge to the executive status quo.

The CDO helps steer the business through these unfamiliar waters.

But there is a problem.

Unless the CDO is protected from the day to day responsibility of maintaining the machine, they won’t be able to focus on innovation

The problem arises because the CDO sits with other functional c-level roles, CFO, COO and so on.

By its nature, the CDO must be cross-functional, breaking down barriers between functions, evangelising new methodologies such as agile and lean startup, and promoting cultural shifts that promote the non-hierarchical and collaborative way of working of digital natives.

But, unless the CDO is protected from the day to day responsibility of maintaining the machine, they won’t be able to focus on the innovation in ideas, technologies and culture that is required.

Some businesses, such as Air New Zealand, have gone for a role which has a strong functional element. Air New Zealand even refers to it as a CIO plus role. It will be interesting to see how much focus can be maintained on the transformative nature of the role.

You’ll appreciate that I am simplifying to make the point, but, thinking of the CDO as another functional role risks leaving the focus on maintenance, whether it be of the CRM or of plant. To be successful, the CDO needs to be truly cross-functional focusing on what next, and how to get there.

Hamish Nuttall launched nakedbus.com, a low cost, internet-based long distance bus company in 2006. Hamish integrated marketing, IT, Ops and customer experience, harnessing agile and lean startup methodologies to deliver rapid growth. 

Naked Bus achieved 40% market share, carrying 700,000 passengers per year, 25-40% year on year growth and a Net Promoter Score of +65.

Following its sale in early 2015, he now works with organisations to help them in their digital transformation.

Contact Hamish at hamish@digile.io.