What is a Chief Digital Officer – And Does Your Company Need One?

CDOs bring more to the table than an in-depth knowledge of innovative and cutting-edge technology; they also know how organizations will continue to evolve

Matt Duczeminski
December 20 2018

In less than half a century, technological innovations such as the internet, email, and mobile phones have gone from futuristic fantasies to essential components of modern life. We’ve come to expect omnipresence and a streamlined customer experience from our favorite brands and service providers.

This is where a Chief Digital Officer comes in.

The Advent of the Chief Digital Officer

As of 2015, only 6% of the world’s top 1,500 companies had a full-time CDO on staff.

With that in mind, take a look at the following graph depicting the percentage of companies that rate their digital IQ as “strong”:Source

It seems that a large percentage of companies know they need to make improvements as far as digital efforts and initiatives – but that only a small portion of them are willing to invest in change.

What Does a Chief Digital Officer Do?

A CDO’s responsibilities revolve around getting their organization “up to speed” with the latest in technological advances and enabling teams to apply these new tools into their daily processes.

Let’s take a closer look as to what this entails.

Considering the Modern Consumer’s Needs

In the early days of the internet, receiving email from your favorite brands wasn’t the norm.  Now, it’s par for the course.

In the early 2000s, the ability to navigate your global position with your mobile phone was astonishing. Today, virtually every company in the world has its own smartphone app.

Fast forwarding to, say, 2050, it’s easy to predict a standard of consumer expectation where customers actually grow frustrated when the order they placed telepathically doesn’t materialize in front of them within seconds. Will Yelp be able to accept telepathic reviews in 2050? But I digress.

The point is that consumers are always looking to the “next big thing,” whether we’re talking about products or services. One of the main responsibilities of the CDO is to stay as many steps ahead of the consumer as possible, essentially anticipating and understanding the ways in which modern consumers expect to engage with their favorite brands.

This requires that CDOs continuously work to introduce new customer-facing technology to their organizations, and to educate their marketing, sales, and support teams about maximizing the use of relevant new tools.

Considering the Internal Use of Technology

Of course, organizations don’t just use emerging tools and tech in their customer-facing initiatives; they use them internally, as well.

CDOs, then, are also responsible for the introduction and integration of these new tools into their organization’s functionality. As such, they must be able to assess their organization’s current processes – from product development and service delivery, to internal communications, to fulfillment and returns – and understand where and how emerging technology fits into the equation.

Of course, the CDO must also ensure that team members are trained in the use of these newer tools well enough to create sustainably enhanced productivity across the board.

It’s worth noting here that the CDO need not assume the role of all-powerful tech God. In instances in which more specialized knowledge of certain topics (e.g., coding, software engineering, etc.) is required, CDOs need to know to whom on their team to defer and work with when introducing new technologies.


Before an organization can even begin its digital transformation, the CDO must first create a plan of attack, so to speak. This means that he or she must:

  • take stock of the organization’s current processes, and the technology used therein
  • assess the company’s future business goals and determine what needs to change internally in order to reach them
  • communicate and justify these changes to all teams in a way that resonates with them and their role within the organization

The CDO must also reinforce the notion that digital transformation is defined by constant evolution; that there will always be room for improvement. In a world where newer, more innovative technology is introduced on a seemingly daily basis, it makes sense that a CDO should work according to the principle that organizational optimization is a constant process.

De-Siloing the Organization

De-siloing may be the most important factor in a successful digital transformation.

In fact, back in 2015, IDC Retail Insights predicted that by this year, This underscores the importance of building lines of communication both horizontally and vertically – another CDO responsibility.

Laterally speaking, the CDO must bring all teams together in order to enhance communication and collaboration across the board as pertaining to organizational digitization. To this end, every single initiative the organization undertakes must be a team effort.

Lisa Schneider, CDO of Merriam-Webster, explains:

“Digital isn’t a single department, but simply a part of how we do business… These groups all roll up to one CDO so that we can ensure communication and collaboration under a unified digital strategy as part of our core DNA.”

In light of this, the CDO will typically keep close contact with each company department, often acting as a liaison between the CEO and “on-the-ground” members of an organization. The idea is to not only keep the CEO appraised of company progress, but also to keep everyone synchronized with the company vision and specific initiatives alike.

So, Why Does Your Company Need a CDO?

If you’re still debating whether or not your company needs a Chief Digital Officer – especially if it’s relatively small or in early stages – it might help to take a step back in time.

Television was invented in the late 1920s, grew exponentially through the 1950s, and now exists in pretty much every household across the US (two times over).

The first TV commercial – an advertisement for Bulova watches – was broadcast in 1941. Without looking too deeply into it, it’s probably safe to say that Bulova didn’t have a dedicated “Chief Television Officer” at the time; the company most likely had its marketing agency whip something up to test the waters and see if television was a viable advertising channel.

Today, annual television ad spend is nearing a whopping $70 billion. By today’s standards, it’s a no-brainer for a company to onboard an advertising executive specifically focused on TV advertising initiatives – and the prospect of not having a dedicated digital marketing team is virtually unheard of.

Bottom line: if you don’t currently have a CDO in place – or at least a group of individuals who fulfill the overall duties of a CDO – you’re running the risk of eventually falling behind your competition.

Regardless of the size of your organization or how long it’s been in the game, for your organization to stay competitive it must eventually select a person or team dedicated to the principles of organization-wide digitization – both outward-facing, and in.

Matt Duczeminski

Matt is a professional writer specializing in helping entrepreneurs improve relationships with their customers. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Sarah, and he'd probably get a lot more work done if his cat would stop bothering him.

Be the first to comment on this post:


Let's Get Acquainted

Chars: 0

Get your free print edition!

Fill out your complete details below

Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0
Chars: 0