Are You Really a Chief Digital Officer?

Tell most folks you’re a chief information officer, or CIO, and they’ll have a grasp of what you do for a living. However, are you really a chief digital officer, or CDO? It’s an issue worth considering as your role evolves.

What’s the best way to determine if you are a CDO vs. a CIO? takes a stab at the topic. “A chief digital officer (CDO) is an executive enlisted to help businesses transform traditional IT policies and business processes to accommodate digital sectors such as mobile technology and applications and Web-based information management and marketing trends,” the article says.

The key word in that definition would be “transform.” A chief digital officer moves an organization forward, while a CIO, to simplify things, might be more focused on the status quo.

Here is further explanation as provided by “Unlike the chief information officer (CIO), a company’s chief digital officer focuses less on running infrastructure and more on creating the procedures required to manage that infrastructure. CDOs typically do not make large-scale technology purchasing decisions; rather, they are enlisted to break up siloed functions within an organization to accommodate new technologies and plan strategies for how to use them most effectively,” it says.

Lisa Arthur, writing at, elaborates further on the role of chief digital officers – going so far as to say companies should consider hiring them – now. “CDOs are digital-savvy, business-driven leaders who have what it takes to transform traditional businesses into data-driven companies. They combine marketing and management experience with technical know-how and strategic vision to align and improve business operations across the enterprise,” she says.

Arthur adds that the cross-expertise is what makes the CDO so valuable to an organization. “Despite the CDO’s technical expertise, the primary responsibility of this role is not to make tech decisions. Instead, the CDO is charged with making decisions about how data and customers relate,” she writes. “Remember: Data analytics and the customer experience are not mutually exclusive. However, engraining this fact in your organization will no doubt call for a shift in cultural mindset about data — what it is at your company, what it means to your business, and what you want it to do for you and for your customers’ experience of your brand.”

Another perspective on CDOs comes from Toby Wolpe, writing at He says, “David Mathison, founder of the Chief Digital Officer Club, recently told the MIT Sloan Management Review that there will still be only 500 CDOs worldwide by the end of [2013], although that is a big rise from the 75 or so that existed in 2011. Many firms say they plan to hire a chief digital officer, with forecasts suggesting one in four businesses will have recruited one by the end of 2014. But right now a CDO in post remains a relative rarity.”

Wolpe also says certain types of companies are more likely to have CDOs than others. He reports, “CDOs are more common in conventional businesses that are in transformation, rather than in organisations formed in the current age, where a grasp of the business potential of digital products and services may be more ingrained.”

So, what should you do if you decide your role is more CDO vs CIO? It will be important to make sure your organization’s reporting structure matches your responsibilities either if you locate to a new company or create the new role at your place of business. Arthur, from Forbes, advises, “Think carefully about the optimal reporting structure for your firm. In some companies, the CDO reports directly to the CEO to drive enterprise-wide change. In others, the position reports to the CMO, yet carries the broad enterprise mission. In order to be successful, CDO and CMO have to function as collaborative partners.”

Keith Griffin
Keith Griffin is an award-winning business writer and editor with more than 30 years experience as a journalist. His work has been published in The Boston Globe, Medical Economist, Good Housekeeping,, the Hartford Courant, CT Law Tribune and numerous other regional publications.