5 surprises chief digital officers should prepare for

Often new to their roles, chief digital officers may get more than they bargained for. Or, sometimes, less.

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The job of chief digital officer is transcending its niche. No longer exclusive to big companies with vast technology budgets, the CDO has entered the mainstream. As CEOs re-cast their companies as digital enterprises and Chief Marketing Officers grapple with the new omnichannel reality, digital capabilities are no longer a technology luxury, but a competitive necessity.

So-called digital convergence mandates not only new skills but different ways of working. Companies recruiting chief digital officers often fail to prepare candidates for the on-the-ground challenges they’ll confront when they launch their teams and begin the yeoman’s work of digital delivery.

In my experience there are five unexpected phenomena that new CDOs should expect when—ideally before—they start the job.

1: Different digital definitions. The reality of business siloes means business units have launched their own digital projects. Marketing might be experimenting with real-time product recommendations pushed to customers’ smart devices, while manufacturing might be introducing sensors into the supply chain. Each business unit considers its challenges unique. Functional executives pay little heed to the connection, data integration, and analytics technologies that will ultimately be necessary to optimize these efforts.

Exacerbating this is the fact that business units have managed to procure their own funding for these independent projects. They consider the chief digital officer with a wary eye, avoiding engagement lest their new colleague questions in-process work.

2: No data strategy. Despite the new urgency to support larger and more complex data volumes, chief digital officers are often shocked at the lack of skills, planning, and organizational structures needed to support data’s accelerating growth. Many companies that have invested millions in data governance and management nevertheless have no clear game plan for ingesting new data types or supporting exploding data volumes.

Absent an understanding of data strategy, digital managers will often hire a consulting firm to conduct a data inventory, itself a cumbersome exercise that risks being branded academic. By the time a data inventory yields meaningful results, an individual business unit may have delivered a disruptive digital innovation, marginalizing the chief digital officer and her team.

3: Inchoate customer profiles. It’s no secret that today’s customers are hyper-connected, often interacting with your company via different channels for different purposes. Their expectation? Services that are both newly efficient and highly personalized.

But companies have been slow to track individual interactions and behaviors, using that data to shape customer segments and individual profiles. Absent new customer insights, lackluster outreach results might fall into the chief digital officer’s lap.

4: Shiny object syndrome. A recently-named chief digital officer took a trip to California to visit Google, where he ended up cruising around Mountainview in a smart car. The CDO had recently been promoted by health care provider employer.  In the meantime his clinician colleagues were meeting with a software vendor about streaming patient vital signs to their smart devices, allowing them to provide care away from the bedside.

Rather than giving the CDO the prestige he’d intended, the Silicon Valley sojourn was widely ridiculed as a boondoggle. It had nothing to do with what how the healthcare network needed to exploit digital for patient care.

5: Awaiting the digital playbook. Much has been made of the creation of the digital playbook, ostensibly an enterprise how-to guide for deploying digital across the enterprise. Digital executives will often “get everyone in a room,” in order to understand general business challenges. Managers and staff attend the meeting and weigh in, only to wait for weeks or months to see any tangible delivery. And if a playbook ever materializes, odds are it’s almost immediately obsolete!

Digital teams have a honeymoon period. They can’t afford to launch long assessments or conduct lengthy benchmarking studies, behaving more like research organizations than value providers.

The most effective digital leaders get a quick handle on existing cultural norms, listen to pain points and business unit strategies, and use this information to quickly launch digital projects that will solve a discrete problem while introducing fresh processes and technologies that will serve as a foundation for subsequent digital efforts. As these projects roll out, the organizational ripple effect will be evident, and the Chief Data Officer will have earned the right to innovate.

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