3 ways CIOs can get off to a good start with the chief digital officer

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You might have noticed the extra chair in the executive conference room. It’s for the new chief digital officer, one of the hottest C-suite titles to have today.

Many enterprises are seeking CDOs for software initiatives and digital transformation efforts, and leaders from both marketing and technical backgrounds are quickly claiming the title. But what exactly is a chief digital officer? And if they’re managing digital technology projects and all things software-related, what does that mean for the CIO?

Analyst firm Gartner Inc. offered helpful definitions and perspective on the role of the CDO in their recent report, “What CIOs Should Do About Strategic Chief Digital Officers.”

The Gartner report is a good short read. It got me thinking about how CDOs impact and change the dynamics of a company. It’s also been a great lunch table topic at recent tech conferences, as data professionals recount their own, sometimes hilarious experiences with “transformational” leaders.

One of the biggest misconceptions about CDOs is that they’re going to interrupt, negatively impact, or worse, squeeze out the CIO entirely. At face value, there is a lot of potential overlap in the roles. But this Gartner report offers a better understanding of the CDO’s role and explains how the CIO and CDO roles can be highly complementary.

Chief Digital Officers and CIOs: Who Does What?

First, before you update your LinkedIn profile – know that the role of the CDO is generally a transitional one, the Gartner authors explain. ‘Transitional’ is the diplomatic way of saying ‘temporary.’ This is because a company’s shift to digital transformation requires big changes in strategy, culture, organization and competency.

Those requirements often extend across all business functions. Once those changes are made, organizations can go back to business as usual. To make those big transformational changes, a CEO may bring in a CDO to provide fresh insight, cross-functional leadership, and specific digital technology skills. The technology bit is where things can get confusing and threatening for some CIOs.

But fear not: Digital transformation often require leaders as (or more!) adept at changing culture as technology – and herein lies both a challenge and opportunity.

Some chief digital officers view technology more conceptually, especially if they’re from a marketing background. That can lead to broad, sweeping comments like: “just combine all the data!”-- that leave IT colleagues fuming: “What about governance, compliance…? Does she/he have any idea what that would take around here?!”

No, they have no idea what it would take. That’s your job. But they can excite a room with their energy and flashy presentations, and many CIOs could really use that. A solid alliance could mean more budget and organizational support for IT. The right CDO might even be able to help rebrand some of those projects you’ve been trying to get done for years.

Chief Digital Officers and CIOs: Relationship Advice

The Gartner authors offered simple, but reassuring advice to CIOs concerned that CDOs might have a negative impact on their career. They suggest that these three things will help CIOs position themselves higher in the organization, especially once the digital transformation is complete.

  1. Support the CDO by helping them navigate the company and providing the resources that will allow them to shine.
  2. Encourage the CDO to extend his/her reach across the company. The CDO role is not typically a permanent position. Working closely with the CDO, you can transform your entire organization to a fully digital business.
  3. Defend the digital ideas that the CDO initiates. The CDO will likely present new ways of thinking, new processes, new organizational structures and other changes that challenge established operations. Build on your established credibility as CIO to work alongside the CDO and persuade business executives to adopt the new digital strategy.

Following that advice may mean taking a few deep breaths. Remember that you’re both trying to meet similar goals for the organization. CDOs may demand that you push boundaries, consider new approaches and swallow snide comments about physics. But a few of their ideas might actually be good ones, especially with your technical tweaks.

Ultimately, CIOs have an opportunity to help CDOs implement software projects effectively, and make smart and lasting choices. And CDOs may have the juice to help CIOs get funding for new impactful projects like cloud data lakes, big data or analytics projects.

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