Chief digital officer - Who, what, why, when, where, how?

Sooraj Shah
clock • 12 min read

Going 'digital' is a popular mantra, but organisations see the scope of the digital leader differently, Sooraj Shah investigates

The number of chief digital officers across the globe is soaring, but the scope of the role has led to much debate.

There seems to be a myriad of different chief digital officer (CDO) roles, with each organisation believing their version is the right one.

The role isn't new. In fact it has been around for more than a decade. But it was in 2012 that organisations really started taking notice and by the end of 2014, the world's largest network of chief digital and data officers, the CDO Club, said that about 1,000 CDOs had been recognised worldwide.

Why is the CDO necessary?

One thing that most CDOs, or indeed those who hired a CDO, will tell you is that the role is necessary in order to ensure that an organisation is "truly digital". As Travelex CDO Sean Cornwell suggests, this is a transformation of the whole business, not just the front-end customer-facing side.

"[Going digital] is not just to be digitally aware, or merely adopting digital, but it is to be fully digital across the whole of the business," he says. CDO Pascal Moyon adds that the end goal for being digital should be to strengthen the company's customer base.

"It's being able to articulate a strong customer position. To improve retention [we had to] improve the IT of what is already a very strong brand that has a 20 million-strong customer base in Europe," he says.

NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) was on the hunt for a CDO to combine the duties of the organisation's interim CIO, along with additional duties that focus around digital technologies and service delivery.

During the search, Ian Trenholm, the CEO of the organisation, said he wanted the CDO to be a "challenger" for the organisation.

"I want the CDO to see what other people are doing with technology, identifying the latest things and suggesting how we can add value to our services," he says.

"I think we need a futurologist kind of individual that hasn't been embedded into the organisation that can challenge service line leaders to think about things differently," he adds.

Meanwhile, at engineering juggernaut Atkins, CIO and CDO Richard Cross, says that the need to add CDO to his existing CIO title was born out of the need for the firm to go "digital by default" by 2020. But in his mind, he's not taking on any additional responsibilities because the information services group that he heads will transform into the digital group.

But while many organisations - including the UK government - have hired CDOs in newly created roles not everyone sees the need for the introduction of a new position.

Paddy Power CIO Fin Goulding believes the role of the CDO is already being carried out at the betting firm by the chief product officer.

"It's a role which predominantly looks at what we're doing in mobile and desktop. It is what we're doing in the digital and marketing world but we don't have it as a CDO. It centres more around products," he says.

He adds that the CDO role that exists in other companies is essentially "technical marketing".

Indeed,'s Moyon and Travelex's Cornwell both insist that the role of the CDO is far closer to marketing than it is to IT.

Who do CDOs report into?

Where CDOs report into has been the subject of much debate - with Travelex's Cornwell suggesting that a CDO reporting into a CIO, or indeed any other C-suite executive other than the CEO, would be a recipe for disaster.

"The CDO absolutely has to report into the CEO, anything else and you're setting yourself up for failure," he argues.'s Moyon agrees.

"It's not an IT role - it's a business role and if anything it is closer to marketing than it is to technology. Technology is just an enabler, the role is really about transforming the organisation," he says.

According to Cornwell, the CDO should report into the CEO because the CIO may have a conflict of interest, as they have existing IT infrastructure, legacy and systems that they are looking after.

This echoes Hampshire County Council CDO Jos Creese's belief that a true digital model has to disrupt the existing operating practice of a business.

"It requires a different approach to risk, customer service and the majority of back-office internal business processes. That in turn requires completely new leadership, culture and skills at the top table, which for most organisations is naturally scary," he says in his comment piece on Computing.

Creese, who was previously CIO at the council, adds that many organisations instead are tempted to simply improve IT.

But Phil Pavitt, global CIO at Specsavers, believes that there is no need for CDOs to sit on the board, even if the role was introduced to disrupt the business.

He suggests that CDOs are necessary for companies looking to transition to get to a digital state, but that this is a short-term role, with digital leaders then having to work under the CIO and CMO.

"I've seen CDOs recruited in other organisations and I've seen the disruption they bring - sometimes it's powerful like the Mike Bracken concept in government. But if you've still got a CDO after the first disruption, you may have missed the point because people would say ‘we do digital' when in fact the answer is that everyone does digital," he explains.

This is perhaps why Pavitt and the marketing chief at Specsavers interviewed candidates for two separate roles - an IT digital director and a marketing digital director.

"We've interviewed each other's directors and we are going to start them together because [many firms] make a huge mistake [in not realising] that success is when IT and marketing realise digital is a joint journey," he says.

"We've given both of these individuals a huge fighting chance of being successful because we have recruited them with the other [manager] in mind so it wasn't hard - we think it was very powerful," he says.

The third and final instance Computing has seen of a CDO, is one where the duties of a CDO and CIO are combined - like the role currently occupied by Atkins' Cross. He reports directly to the CEO.

According to BMC CTO Phil Harris, if the CEO truly believes that digitisation is important, they wouldn't want a "middle man" coming between them and the person leading such a high-profile project.

What skills does a CDO need?

According to Cross, CIOs are in a great position to be named CDOs.

"CIOs really do understand technology well - they are typically controlling a lot of investment already as well as understanding strategy so they are very well positioned to work out how to maintain all of the important things around security, reliability and service levels but also embrace some of these new [digital] technologies," he says.

But Specsavers' Pavitt believes that it is unnecessary for a CDO to come from a CIO or marketing background.

Indeed, the likes of Travelex's Cornwell and's Moyon have contrasting backgrounds.

"My experience is completely pure-play and it's my first time in a completely traditional business," says Cornwell.

"I spent three years at Google where I ran B2B and marketing across Europe, I then built and ran eHarmony's international businesses in various different markets, and prior to this role I was a COO of same-day e-commerce delivery firm Shutl, which got sold to eBay at the end of 2013," he explains.

Meanwhile, Moyon has a background as an engineer and mathematician. His first introduction to digital work was putting in place analytics for Thomas Cook online back in 2010.

He believes that as the CDO is a new role, it is likely to be given to people with a range of different experiences.

"You need to have business and commercial acumen - but it could be anyone," he says.

According to Cornwell, Travelex was looking for someone with an entrepreneurial skillset, as well as someone who could operate in a larger organisation. The flexibility and adaptability, he says, were crucial attributes that Travelex was looking for.

Meanwhile, in its hunt for a CDO, an advert in The Sunday Times showed that NHSBT was looking for someone with significant and wide-ranging experience in a large, complex customer-facing organisation with 24/7, multi-site operations. The successful candidate would have to have "proven experience in developing and implementing wide-ranging technologies strategies to achieve transformational levels of change and efficiency with a focus on driving customer experience".

NHSBT, like Atkins, would have just one role that encompasses the CIO and CDO duties, and therefore it was probably leaning towards candidates with CIO or transformational director experience.

Atkins' Cross says that his background prior to his role at the engineering firm included heading transformational projects, both within IT and the business, and this gave him the repertoire of skills necessary to be a CDO.

He urges CIOs to explore new technologies and new skills that would be required to be a CDO, as he thinks this will be the norm in five years' time.

But Pavitt says CIOs and marketers who think they should be a CDO have missed the whole point.

"The actual answer is for IT and marketing to work together," he argues.

However, there are many CIOs, such as former Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett, who have gone on to lead digital transformation projects elsewhere.

Forrester analyst Nigel Fenwick suggests that CIOs with experience in marketing and/or business-unit leadership are well equipped to lead the future digital transformation journey in many companies. He estimates that only about 20 per cent of CIOs have this kind of experience today.

"This is exactly the kind of CIO that CEOs need to hire in the future," he says.

What about their teams?

There are stark differences between the teams at and Travelex.

While already recruited staff to work in a digital environment prior to Moyon's arrival as CDO, Travelex is building from the bottom up.

"I was effectively given a white paper and we were looking at a £50m investment in the last year, most of which is in people really," says Travelex's Cornwell.

The firm is hiring about 80 to 90 people across what he sees as core capabilities needed to drive digital transformation. These include digital marketing, product management, engineering, R&D, data science, mobile and CRM.

"We've been focused on really getting the best people. People who would have also had offers from the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google, that calibre of people. It doesn't mean we get everyone but we win more than we lose because we have a compelling story with what we're doing," Cornwell says.

Meanwhile, Moyon says that has a data scientist team but the business did not know what to do with it prior to his arrival. He says it was part of his role to create the bridge between what the business needs and the people who can deliver complex solutions or algorithms to service those needs.

"My role is to ask what the business problems are which will require data science skills and to work with the team to explain the problem and drive them to work with me on the solution," he says.

But is it common for a CDO to oversee data science teams?

"Digital is really about data - it is underpinned by data. You can't do digital if you don't understand data, or at least it's much harder if you don't," says Moyon.

How do they work with the CIO and CMO?

Travelex's Cornwell says he has a close relationship with the firm's product and marketing director, constantly talking about bringing their teams closer together.

He says the relationship with the CIO has to be close one.

"There has to be trust and integrity there because it's really important there is visibility, particularly from the CIO into what the digital plans are and what the digital teams are. That doesn't necessarily mean you're always agreeing and seeing eye to eye, but there needs to be that dialogue and transparency," he says.

"Sometimes there are hard conversations and sometimes you have to agree to disagree, and that's fine and that's healthy and happens in all organisations whether you're going through digital transformations or not, but it has to be a strong relationship because a lot of the stuff you're doing is hard and it has tech and IT at the edge of it," he says.

For's Moyon, the CIO still makes the technology decisions.

"But the CDO makes the requirements for the suite of tools that are needed for marketing and analytics; things like how you manage your CRM, what you need to manage your marketing investments, and the tools you need to track your interactions with your customers," he says.

But while these relationships have to be strong - is there a chance that the CDO could replace the CIO at some point?

Cornwell doesn't believe so. He says that a business will always need a CIO to keep the lights on and manage the current estate, but that they might not always need a CDO.

He suggests that the CDO role is a short-term one because once a company has transitioned to being fully digital, there's no longer a need for a CDO.

"Let's be frank, if you walked into Google or Facebook with a job title of CDO you'd get laughed out of the door - the CDO role is ridiculous," he says, emphasising his point that organisations that have been digital from the get-go, don't need a CDO to manage "digitalisation".

But others, like Atkins' Cross, disagree. He believes that if CDOs are successful in making organisations digital, then they could replace CIOs.

"A lot of the things traditional CIOs have done, such as looking after systems in-house, are changing. I think with everything moving to the cloud it is less about running the infrastructures, data centres and the WANs; our plan is to not have any data centres by 2020. So the skills and functions you provide are quite different.

"Could you label that role as a CIO in five years' time? I guess so, but I think CDO would be a better title," he suggests.

BMC's Harris believes the CDO role is what organisations should be working towards.

"CDOs tend to be more focused on consumers and driving change throughout the organisation than CIOs, who tend to represent things as they are."

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