With great power…

If we had a pound for every article we’ve read on how IT is now a business enabler, not just basic infrastructure, we’d probably be on a beach in Barbados right now. But, snarkiness aside, it’s undeniable technology has never been more important to businesses.

In theory, this should make CIOs very powerful. However, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And the problem is many businesses don’t think their CIOs can handle this responsibility.

The elements of the critics’ case aren’t hard to make out. For decades, CIOs have been in charge of making sure people have the right equipment and that it works. Over the years they’ve rolled out wave after wave of devices: desktop machines in the 1990s, then laptops, and now smartphones and tablets. Storage has gone from tapes to hard disks to the cloud. It’s all been about managing inexorable progress of technology and making sure everyone uses it right.

But this focus on managing the IT estate has kept many CIOs bogged down at a tactical level within their organisations. It’s been a thankless task. Doesn’t everyone have a bad story to tell about how their device didn’t work and IT couldn’t fix it?

With that baggage, why would they trust the CIO to handle the bigger issues – like becoming a digital-first organisation or intelligently using real-time data analytics – that could shape the future of the company?

Who you gonna call?

Put yourself, then, in the shoes of a CEO today. You know that the future of your business is digital. You have the vision of what that future looks like, but you don’t understand the nuts and bolts of how to get there. Who would you trust with the project of transforming your processes and structures to thrive in the digital world?

Enter the Chief Digital Officer.

As digital rises up the agenda for businesses, more and more of them are hiring Chief Digital Officers to oversee the transformation process. Indeed, according to Gartner, the number of CDO jobs worldwide doubled between 2013 and 2014 alone, and has continued to grow rapidly ever since. Even the UK government merged its CIO and CTO roles into a single CDO job earlier this year.

Governments aside, the CDO role arguably emerged as a solution to the battle over digital within company boardrooms. Unable to decide whether digital sat better within the remit of CMOs (who understand customers) or CIOs (who understand technology), boards created CDOs to look at both aspects at once.

In contrast to those other roles, CDOs are meant to see things from a customer perspective, looking at all of the ‘touch points’ where customers deal with the company and using digital to re-shape and improve them.

Batman vs Superman

But like Batman, CIOs have the gadgets – and they might not need to deploy Kryptonite to see off the threat of Super-CDOs.

Roughly a quarter of businesses have a CDO today, according to Gartner estimates. That leaves lots of organisations where the responsibility for digital is still up for grabs. The opportunity for CIOs in those businesses is to show they are worthy of it.

So, in this boardroom battle for control, what do CIOs need to do to fend off the challenge from CDOs?

Here are three ideas that will go a long way to helping…

First, if they don’t speak the languages of finance and marketing fluently, they will at least need to be conversant in them. The appeal of CDOs is they can mix a CMO-style understanding of customers and brand with a CIO-like attention to technical detail, while justifying their decisions based on bottom-line impact. Some CIOs might struggle to moonlight in these areas (or not want to), but at a minimum they need to consider the effect technology has on customers and on financial performance, and be able to discuss it.

Second, they need to look at their company’s technology objectively and not get hung-up about the perception of protecting legacy infrastructure. They need to look at the business from the bottom-up, without having vested interests in the equipment and systems they have deployed in previous years. This should all start from the point of improving the customer experience – only then can CIOs decide which tech is best placed to do this.

Third, they need to play the long game. Most observers are sceptical about the long-term chances of the CDO role: once a business has successfully digitised, will they really need CDOs in five or 10 years’ time? CIOs, in contrast, provide a valuable service that will still be necessary decades from now – just as long as they don’t rest on their laurels and keep updating their skills and mindset as times change.

Of course, there’s another option too. Ultimately, Batman and Superman are on the same side against the bad guys. Maybe CIOs and CDOs can work together as well to take on the challenges of digitisation?


Andrew Davidson

Words by

Andrew has been in tech marketing for quite some time and strangely still retains a keen desire for it. He’s worked in the agency world and the client environment with organisations such as Lucent, Sony, AT&T and Cisco, he’s now Head of Marketing, EMEIA – Business Application Solutions at Fujitsu.


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