Digital transformation: What is a Chief Digital Officer?

David Mathison, who collaborates with many CDOs, explains the role and why it is important. Read this post and watch the video to learn about modern Chief Digital Officers.

Recently, CXOTalk put together a list of 20 influential Chief Digital Officers. As part of that initiative, we spoke with David Mathison, who runs Chief Digital Officer Summits around the world.

During the conversation, Mathison gave numerous examples of Chief Digital Officers and Chief Data Officers working in large companies and the government.

Most important is his statement that the CDO is involved with "transforming the entire organization, not just a silo, including marketing, operations, HR, and finance." With this comment, Mathison summarizes the scope of digital transformation.

You can watch the entire conversation, and read a complete transcript, over at the CXOTalk site. The following short video includes comments from Matison about the CDO role:

Here are edited comments from David Mathison, offering insight into the Chief Digital Officer role:

Chief Digital Officers are really in charge of digital transformation in an organization.

Native Chief Digital Officers have usually been brought in to take on digital transformation, build out a P&L, with P&L responsibility, and build out a profit center. Sometimes at the expense of legacy and analog revenue streams; sometimes to enhance those, and sometimes to build out new revenue streams and new businesses.

Mike Bracken, from Government Digital Service in the UK, is a good example. You think a digital guy is going to come in and revamp the website, and maybe add more pages to an already loaded website. Mike first eliminated thousands of pages to help customers get things done.

[For example,] you want to get a permit in Rhode Island for fishing, or you want to get a driver's license and not sit at the RMV all day. At the website, you see pictures of bureaucrats kissing babies and doing all kinds of stuff that has nothing to do with your ultimate goal.

[Among Chief Digital Officers,] there's almost an obsession about making the customer journey extremely easy and fulfilling.

For a Chief Data Officer (in government), the focus or goal should be getting datasets out of archives and arcane silos inside of government, out into the population where we can crowdsource and build interesting applications on top of them.

In New York, you can go to the website and see where most violent crimes take place, which helps the police force and community activists. Or, the famous pothole app: you get sick and tired of seeing that pothole in front of your house, so why not take a photo of it with your cell phone and upload it with GPS. Again, alert the community and hopefully build a consensus around let's get something done in our community.

You don't need a Chief Digital Officer at Google, Netflix, or Amazon any more than the BBC needs a Chief Radio Officer. It's just not necessary. You're not seeing them there, and we never have.

It's the incumbents that need Chief Digital Officers. Once a company becomes digital through and through, through its core, the head of that organization and everyone underneath them should have digital in their DNA. The first and foremost thing they should think about is making the customer journey as seamless as possible. Put obsessive focus and concentration on the customer.

In the advertising industry alone, 60% of Chief Digital Officers were previously CEO, President, or General Manager; that's an astounding figure. That explains why so many CDOs are becoming CEO; it's because they already were CEO, General Manager, or President.

We found through our analysis that over 30% of Chief Digital Officers in media and publishing used to be CEO, GM, or President. A couple of prominent examples. Vivian Shiller was Managing Director with New York Times and Discovery, but then she was CEO of National Public Radio. She became Chief Digital Officer at NBC News.

Thank you to my colleague Lisbeth Shaw for assistance with this post.


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