CDO v CIO: How the new digital landscape is reshaping IT roles
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CDO v CIO: How the new digital landscape is reshaping IT roles

Mark Shapland – March 2015
Technology heads from Travelex, Genus and Durham University consider whether the emergence of the chief digital officer supports or threatens CIO leaders.

As waves of digitization have swept through organizations, there has been a growing debate about the value of a new addition to the management mix: the chief digital officer (CDO).

Some observers suggest a CDO is vital to push through rapid change at organizations that have been slow to embrace the new opportunities and threats presented by digital disruption. They contend that CDOs often need to be parachuted into situations where the CIO lacks the necessary skillset to implement digital transformation, or is too tied up running operational IT. Others believe CDOs are needed both to evangelize digital thinking and apply it across the wider business.

At the recent Economist CIO Forum in London, CIOs and CDOs from UK companies explored the value of the evolving role and where they think it should sit within the organization.
Catalyst for digital change

As CDO at currency exchange company Travelex, Sean Cornwell is happy to outline why many organizations need to hire a CDO — and his explanation goes to the heart of digital strategy today: “The role is to be the catalyst and driver of change, bringing new ways of thinking and acting in areas where [digitization] would otherwise happen too slowly or not happen at all.”
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Sean Cornwell, CDO of Travelex

He argues that Travelex is a prime example of what might be seen as an old economy business that has benefited from an injection of digital know-how — right across the organization. “A CDO needs to work hand in hand with the CIO, but digital is something that cuts across the whole organization. The worst thing a digital team can be is a silo — to be seen as the cool kids in the corner.”


With that in mind, he believes a primary role of the CDO is to communicate to senior executives the value that digital can bring to the business, making sure that everyone in the organization is comfortable with the transition to digital.

That can be a contradictory experience, he says. “It’s strange, because employees are now digital consumers but when they come into the office they are told to leave much of that at the door. So it’s about showing people how that [digital experience] is integrated into their work and the business.”

“Being a CDO is what a good CIO should always have been doing — putting together business and technology in a way that helps the business take a leap forward.”

However, for Carolyn Brown, CIO at Durham University, such engagement does not necessarily require the establishment of a separate role; most good CIOs are doing all these things anyway, she says.

“Being a CDO is what a good CIO should always have been doing,” says Brown. “A good CIO has always put together business and technology and expressed [the opportunities] in a way that can help the business take a leap forward and transform [its position in] the marketplace.”

“I feel that the CDO is another CXO label that doesn't necessarily take us forward. There is a risk of an organization using the appointment of a CDO to paper over the cracks in its digital strategy, fearful of changes in the marketplace. Appointing someone who ought to know what it all means makes it look like it is taking decisive action.”

That is a sentiment echoed by Keith Hopkinson, CIO at animal genetics company Genus, who argues that there is no pressing requirement to split the responsibilities for digital change.

“Digital is new but it’s just another manifestation of changing technology and the opportunities that businesses now have,” he says. “A CIO has to adapt his role and develop.”

“Of course, if you’re slow to act, unresponsive and focused on just keeping the lights on, then your organization will find a different kind of CIO.” But the reality is that many CIOs are perfectly capable of adapting to the current wave of change, he says.
Legacy IT burden

Even Travelex’s Cornwell concedes that the CDO’s role should have a limited lifespan. He believes that once digital has become the norm across every business, the position will cease to exist.

“A decade from now there won’t be such a thing as a chief digital officer because digital will be core, intrinsic across the whole organization. Even today, Google has no CTO, CDO, CIO — they have engineers and a product team. You’d get laughed out the room if you had digital in your business title [at Google].”

In the short term, though, many organizations will feel they need to turbo-charge their digital strategies with the addition of a CDO — not least because many CIOs have their hands full.

Many CIOs are managing huge, complex internal systems — many dominated by legacy IT — and cannot drive digital change without calling in help, he said. “The advantage of bringing in a CDO is to move quickly and build whole new technology stacks that are parallel to, rather than encumbered by, legacy IT.”

The fact is, that often today, “CIO equals legacy and slow to change,” he says. In contrast, “CDO equals digital, speed, competitive advantage and adding value to the business.”

• Sean Cornwell, Carolyn Brown and Keith Hopkinson were speaking at The Economist CIO Forum in London.
First published March 2015
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