Evolution of the CDO: is time almost up for the C-suite's digital kingpin?

The Chief Digital Officer (CDO) was brought into organisations to drive their crucial journeys towards cloud and digital proficiency. With many companies now having effective strategies in place, is it time for the CDO to step aside?

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Firms, therefore, would need to hit a relatively focused sweet spot between ‘not mature enough' and ‘moving to the next phase of digital transformation' for a CDO to be the right kind of hire. Of course, if an organisation does lack that digital maturity, they need to just ensure that they fully embrace a CDO, and crucially, elevate them to a board-level standard. A CDO can't be effective if they aren't given the platform to enact real change, just as they'll be limited if the organisation doesn't outline a measurable set of responsibilities and KPIs that align with its strategic goals.

Ultimately, Strategy& says that where a distinct CDO role doesn't exist within an organisation, it might be worth reconsidering whether one is necessary. This is especially true if the current team has a ‘good combination of talent and expertise'. Considering this, companies are increasingly opting to have many of the CDOs responsibilities shifted to the CIO. According to KPMG and Harvey Nash, while ‘roughly half' of firms have a CDO, it says "CIOs serving as CDOs dwarf the number of dedicated CDOs by over two to one". This is backup up by Citrix, who have stated that 24% of CIOs are now taking on the responsibility that a chief digital officer (CDO) or equivalent would hold (rather than formally appointing someone to take this role).

In fairness, having a CIO act as the driver for digital change is probably not the worst option for more digitally mature organisations, where strong principles and strategies are already in place. Forrester has predicted in the past that digitally-savvy CIOs will render the need for a CDO obsolete. This is due to a range of factors including the necessity of a CIO to orchestrate the underlying technologies and supplier relationships of digital platforms, with things like cloud, open-source software, and microservices coming into the fold.

That's not to say that the skills of CDOs are no longer necessary or that individuals that take on these positions will be out of work. Recent developments actually show that the opposite is true, with over 100 CDOs being promoted to CEO or President at some of the world's largest companies—including Starbucks, GE, and Conde Nast International—over the last few years. The CDO was always just a temporary position designed to propel organisations into digital realms, and the fact that the position is starting to die off shows progress more than anything.

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