What Obscenity and Digital Strategy Have in Common

If your enterprise IT team expects to be viewed as a group of digital leaders, it must first determine what "digital" really means.

leadership words collage

A recent report from my research colleagues at CSC Leading Edge Forum confirms that a desperate shortage of digital leadership exists in the IT suite and within the enterprise as a whole.

In reading the piece I had a flashback.

I was recently asked to keynote at an executive training program on digital leadership for marketing and IT leaders at the HQ level of a major FT 20 company. As usual, when asked to be part of such engagements I sheepishly ask, "So how does your organization define 'digital'"?

There have been very few instances where there wasn’t either a deafening silence or a chuckle on the other end of the line. The conversation typically continues with the revelation that they desperately need help defining exactly what "digital" is so that digital leaders within the IT group can be anointed. They know it has something to do with websites and mobile and data analytics and social media and marketing technology. But most go on to say it's almost easier to define the things that aren’t digital in the enterprise than to list the hundreds that are.

The challenge with IT defining and driving a digital strategy is identical to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defining obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio: "I could never succeed in intelligibly [defining it]…but I know it when I see it." Or in this case "I’ll know a digital strategy when I see it."

Yet as you read these words hundreds of IT organizations around the world are developing digital leadership initiatives (and giving them fancy names and acronyms) without a clue about what an underlying digital strategy really is. They openly admit they're doing this to avoid disintermediation by the many business and shadow units that already live and breathe very specific digital strategies critical for them to engage with their outside customers.

As a marketing wonk I'm the first admit that CMOs share the same challenge. Enter the very trendy and equally nebulous "Chief Digital Officer" reporting to the CEO. Most see this position as analogous to a covert audit agent snooping around the businesses to extract dirt on digital that will justify their typically short term existence.

How does your firm define digital and where does the center of gravity reside for managing central strategy (and the inherent digital ROI) at the corporate level?

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