A Jul 9 2014 LinkedIn Pulse article The Chief Digital Officer is dead (or at least should be), by Laurence Buchanan, Partner at EY, has stirred up some lively discussion. Laurence noted that

“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.”

As you would expect, this met with some disagreement, including a major rant from David Mathison, Curator at Chief Digital Officer Summit and Founder at CDO Club. David points with pride to the From CDO to CEO, the Career Path: http://cdoclub.com/from-chief-digital-officer-to-ceo, noting that

“More than 60% of Chief Digital Officers in the Advertising sector had previous experience as CEO, President, GM, or Executive Director. More than 30% of Chief Digital Officers in the Media sector had previous experience as CEO, President, GM, or Executive Director.”

On the other hand, Lawrence finds broad agreement from many with personal experience of similar situations to the scenario he outlined.  Comments included:

“Any newly created executive role in the company if the person is not empowered is bound to be a failure.”

“The CDO should in my opinion lead a digital transformation process. To do so the CDO must also have the skills and personality to be the main driver of cultural change in a company… many companies are struggling with understanding the role.”

“not to apply the same principle to all CDOs, but often appointing one is like defining a “Digital Strategy”. It leans towards a perspective that digital is a separate thing (broad and difficult to define anyway); or that digital is a set of channels or somehow to one side of the business. As opposed to a perspective that digital is a driver of the corporate strategy and thus, by default, everyone’s responsibility.”

“Reducing the role of digital to a CDO that allows the establishment to continue doing what they did for decades certainly isn’t a role to embrace.”

Overall, there certainly seems to be a case that some organisations are appointing a CDO for the wrong reasons, certainly with no expectation that the CDO will be potential a CEO or even work closely with the current  C-suite.

A different take on the CDO question comes from  Marie Johnson, managing director and chief digital officer at the Centre for Digital Business. In an 8th  October, 2014 CIO article When will the public service appoint CDOs? Marie discusses her experience in 2012, while at the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), where she led a team with diverse public and private sector experience to examine the appointment of a CDO. Marie describes a thorough consultation process and the creation of a ‘two-speed IT’ concept that could accommodate the different roles, responsibilities, relationships and rhythms across the digital and industrial environments.

Marie notes that

“The chief digital officer role clearly would not be an IT role, but a role to drive the transformation of the operating model. This was the first investigation of the CDO role and related governance issues in the Australian public service.The big missing piece 18 months ago and still today is the whole-of-government story: a coherent strategy driving the digital transformation of government and the digital transformation of government agencies.”

Marie’s conclusion is that

“There is now an increasing urgency for action on the National Commission of Audit recommendation for the appointment of an Australian Government chief digital officer (and accompanying CDO roles in key agencies) – a pivotal role to drive the strategy for deep and systemic transformation.”