Chief Digital Officers are ‘paradoxical protagonists’ who aim to make themselves redundant.
Contradictorily part of the organisational ‘establishment’ while being asked to disrupt it, with a digital remit that can only be fulfilled by organisation-wide change: the role of Chief Digital Officer (CDO) is full of challenging contradictions, according to a new study from the Oxford Future of Marketing Initiative.
For the report, 'Understanding Chief Digital Officers', published by Saïd Business School and digital learning company General Assembly, academics analysed interviews with 41 Chief Digital Officers in 13 countries to understand the people occupying this relatively new position and how they can succeed.
‘The CDO role has typically been created by large, established companies who can feel under threat from digital disruption in their markets as well as being excited by the opportunities that new technologies can offer,’ said the report’s lead author Gillian Brooks, Oxford Saïd. ‘But there is no consensus on the ideal background or qualifications for a CDO, where the role should sit in the organisational structure, or even what a CDO does. Our study reinforces this lack of clarity around the role and also reveals a wide range of tensions and paradoxes that shed light on the challenges of transforming “analogue” organisations in a digital world.’
Challenges identified include:
- CDOs are having to do the job and define the role at the same time. Unlike the CEO, CFO, or COO, there is no shared understanding of what they are supposed to do or how they are supposed to do it.
- While they have ‘digital’ in their title, CDOs say the role is about managing business transformations, which demands strategic and people skills more than technology. It’s a big job, but many people internally assume they are doing little more than monitoring the Twitter feed.
- As Chief Digital Officer they are part of the C-Suite and more than half of the sample report directly to the CEO. But they have no formal mandate for the profound change they are championing, which makes them highly dependent on the support of the CEO. If the CEO is not sufficiently ‘on board’ with going digital, nothing gets done.
- CDOs have to manage a range of contradictions and paradoxes. For example, while digital transformation has a fundamental and long-lasting impact on the organisation, the CDO role itself is transient: the definition of success is that they make themselves redundant. While they are in a better position to champion radical change as a relative outsider, in order to make the change happen they need carefully to develop relationships and build credibility as an insider.
‘We discovered that, whatever their background, the most successful CDOs were those who are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. They embrace complexity and paradox by finding ways to make seemingly incongruent, contradictory elements of their roles fit together,’ said Michael Smets, Associate Professor in Management and Organisation Studies at Oxford Saïd. ‘Their lessons are helpful for all leaders who are trying to be future-focused and want to be positive forces for technology-enabled change in their organisations’.
Andrew Stephen, L’Oréal Professor of Marketing at Oxford Saïd, said, ‘Our research is the first academic study we are aware of that has sought to understand the CDO role in detail. It has shown that CDOs have a challenging, complex job – ambiguous, uncertain and paradoxical, and almost certain to have a wider and more profound impact than the organisation anticipated initially. Our findings have important implications not only for individuals who are taking on the CDO role, but also for organisations – and particularly CEOs – who are planning digital transformation and need both to identify a CDO and prepare the organisation for the change that is coming.’