Wednesday, 9 July 2014
The Chief Digital Officer is dead (or at least should be)
Felix sat back and congratulated himself on a job well done. He had been under pressure from activist investors telling him that he wasn’t doing enough in digital, so poaching Clarissa from a silicon valley-based tech giant was a real coup. She was a star performer – Stanford educated and a host of experiences working for tech start-ups, the last of which was acquired by Digital Megavendor inc. Felex knew he had to be seen as placing a bet on digital, but in his heart of hearts he still struggled to see the relevance to his logistics operations, his heavy machinery and some of the clients he worked with who still saw digital as something for their teenagers. As Chief Digital Officer, Clarissa would take care of digital. She would free up valuable time for the c-suite to get on with their real jobs and her appointment may just bump up the share price.
Clarissa joined with high expectations. Felix had made some pretty impressive statements about wanting to place digital at the heart of the company and transform the company by learning from the very best of the digital leaders. She was impressed with his drive and with the fact that whilst he clearly didn’t really understand digital, he wanted to hire a change agent to lead the company through this period of disruption.
A few months into her role, it dawned on Clarissa that her role was simply not set up for success. A host of powerful middle managers and even the CIO just didn’t seem to get it. They were so entrenched in their day jobs and fighting fires that she was never given the face time or the support that she needed. The budget and headcount that Felex had promised her had also failed to materialise, following disappointing quarterly results and a new drive to cut costs and maintain margin. In short she had a weak mandate and no real resources to get things done.
Clarissa’s story is certainly not indicative of every Chief Digital Officers role. Some CDOs are empowered change agents, revitalising and re-imagining the companies that they work for and where that is the case I am fully supportive of the role. But the danger I see in the rush towards creating a Chief Digital officer role is that in some organisations the role is either a parking lot to park all of the challenges that no one else wants to deal with, or a vanity title with little ability to drive real change.
The impact of digital to an organisation is top to bottom – from strategy to customer engagement, operations, risk and tax. Digital should therefore be everyone’s job. If the role of the CDO is to incubate and infuse digital thinking and new ways of working across the company then the mark of success should be when the role is no longer needed.