Where Digital Transformation, Leadership Intersect

Don Tennant
Slide Show

The 5 Essential Traits of Digital Innovators

Last week, I wrote a post about David Rogers, and the notion that digital transformation, rather than being all about technology, is really about strategy and the need for changes in the way organizations think. What Rogers also made clear in a recent interview is that it’s about effective leadership, as well.

Rogers, faculty director of programs on digital marketing and digital business strategy at Columbia Business School, and author of the new book, “The Digital Transformation Playbook,” went as far as to say that the one thing companies most frequently get wrong when undertaking a digital transformation has to do with leadership:

I think they commonly assume it’s something that can be led with a traditional IT organizational structure, or that it’s something that can be sequestered in one part of the organization. I’ve seen this in a global company — they formed a digital acceleration team by making it someone’s half-time job, and hiring one other person.


So you have a one-and-a-half-person headcount to figure out how to transform a global company. It’s sort of like putting it off in a box, which is fine for a team that’s developing a new, break-out product. But when you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to change your organizational culture, that can’t be something that’s done by a few people. It has to be thought of in terms of a broader view of the organization, and it has to have a mandate from the very top — it has to come from the C-suite.

Another dimension of all of this is that the occupants of the C-suite are changing. I pointed out that an increasing number of companies have created a chief digital officer position to lead this transformation, and I asked Rogers how important it is for a company to have an individual in that position. He said it’s a good step, and a good sign:

Some folks, even including people I know whose job is or has been to serve as chief digital officer, have raised the question, what does the title even mean? Is this a transitional role? Is it just the new flavor of the month? I don’t think it is.

As I’ve looked at companies with a chief digital officer, I think it represents an important rethinking, if you look at the shift from a CIO to a CDO. The chief information officer role, traditionally, was predicated on the idea that the technology leader’s job is basically to use technology to improve the operations, and to reduce the risk and cost to the business — how to do things cheaper, faster, more transparently, more efficiently. The idea of a chief digital officer is, rather, to have someone who is looking at technology and asking, how is technology going to impact and define the strategy of the business going forward? How is it going to impact what business we are in, where we are going to grow, where we’re going to market, who our customers are going to be, how we define our value proposition? It’s a very different role, so I think it’s important that companies are starting to rethink this.

In some cases, you might have a business with both [CIO and CDO], which can make sense, as well. But I think it’s significant that companies are thinking about a chief digital officer. And I do think you have to have somebody, whether that’s their job title or not, who’s an evangelist and who has the ear of the CEO — and the visible mandate and backing of the CEO.

I expressed my own view that there’s no way for the CIO of a company to be effective without being a de facto chief digital officer, and that having both positions in one company seems kind of redundant. I asked Rogers in what scenario it would make sense to have both, and he shared a compelling example:

An industry category where you can imagine it making sense would be financial services. There is a tremendous need right now for financial services firms to be really looking at technology in terms of completely rethinking their customer acquisitions, customer relationships, the customer experiences they deliver, as well as investments they might be making in emerging technologies. So there are a lot of strategic questions arising in that industry right now. It makes perfect sense to have a chief digital officer who’s really immersed in strategy, and who has a knowledge of where technology is going, to be leading that thinking.

At the same time, financial services is an industry where the core value of the CIO, particularly around cybersecurity, is absolutely paramount — it’s not becoming any less. And it might not be that your best strategic mind to be your chief digital officer is the same person who also is going to be the best leader of a team that’s going to manage issues around IT security and integrity, cybersecurity, and so forth. So [the latter] person might still be the CIO, who is in charge of these mission-critical aspects of IT within the organization; and then you have a chief digital officer, who’s working with a strategy team on the more innovation-oriented, customer-oriented stuff.

The bottom line, Rogers said, is that it depends on the organization:

My point is, if you have talented individuals who are extremely strong in each of these areas, and they’re both really important to your business, there could be an argument for having two senior-level executives, one in each. In other cases, obviously, it’s going to make sense for them to be the same person.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.



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