by Edward Qualtrough

Digital a journey for the whole company, says Travelex CDO

Jul 16, 20145 mins
CareersFinancial Services IndustryIT Leadership

New Travelex chief digital officer Sean Cornwell believes it is the job of the CDO to oversee a transformation which the whole business goes on, and that organisations just paying lip service to digital and leaving it in a silo or channel are “setting up for failure”. [See also: Chief Digital Officer salary and job description – What’s the CDO role and how much do Chief Digital Officers get paid?]

Cornwell was hired to take up the new CDO role at the foreign exchange company in March, with Travelex chief executive Peter Jackson describing the appointment as integral to the company’s “drive to use digital technology to transform the foreign exchange and payments market”.

And three months into his role in June, former Googler Cornwell told CIO UK about the challenges and opportunities of the new seat at the forex specialists.

“It’s partly strategic and a vision, but the role is also about execution,” he said. “The two are critical.”

Cornwell said that the new responsibilities at Travelex can be divided into three strands.

“We have an online and mobile business, and it goes without saying the role is about building and growing those – and exploiting the assets we’ve got to do this,” he said.

“Also, and maybe more interestingly, thinking about what in three, four or five years’ time the customer proposition and value proposition externally. What should the products and services be we offer to customers – and if that’s the case and is what the new world looks like – how do we get there given current capabilities, assets, resources and so on? And crafting the roadmap and drafting the business down it.

“The third is a cultural aspect. How do you get the business from thinking about IT to thinking about tech? How can you get the business to think more digitally, and to embrace digital?”


Cornwell said that sectors like news, music and the content categories were some of the first to be disrupted, “and what you’re seeing now is these CDO roles and this disruption starting to affect verticals like education and financial services”.

Travelex is an interesting example because it sits at the intersection of financial services and retail, Cornwell said, and “is further down the disruption path”.

“You’ve seen it with the disappearance of Woolworths and HMV and all the others from our high street, and that disruption is starting to happen in consumer financial services.”

The new CDO role at Travelex reports in to the chief executive, while the organisation also has a CIO, but Cornwell believes there are subtle signs in an organisation’s hierarchy revealing how much it values technology in its operations.

“It’s a huge generalisation, but I think an organisation that only has a CIO but no CTO or digital role; it says something about how they view technology,” Cornwell says.

“If they view it as a necessary cost rather than investing in an asset, and they are more ‘old school’ and traditional in how they view technology.

“It’s what we have to do, rather than technology being a core asset which you invest in and can build enterprise value from which is a competitive advantage.”

He added: “Again, it’s a huge generalisation but I think you can tell about whether people or organisations refer to things as IT or refer to them as tech.”

Digital strategy

Cornwell said that he was still in the process of formulating Travelex’s digital strategy, which included a focus on acquiring the right digital skills to push the agenda.

“I’ve been in the role for three and a half months and am putting together what the strategy is for digital across the business,” he said.

“Some of it is short-term quick wins, a lot of it is medium and long-term. Most of it is around investing in the right areas, and a lot of that is talent; there is a lack of digital talent in traditional businesses.”

Marketing and technology

Cornwell describes himself as being “not technical in the slightest”, and says it is frustrating when people come up to him and ask if he can fix their iPad or fix IT problems because of his title. However, he says the CDO post does encompass aspects of the CIO seat as well as bringing in elements of marketing.

“I think in general the remit of the chief digital officer spans into product and marketing on one side, and on the other side the CIO and CTO world,” Cornwell said.

“But the biggest mistake organisations can do is view chief digital officers as the person who runs the websites, or that it’s a silo or channel. That sets you up for failure.

“Looking around the world, we live in a a digital age with the rise of mobile and the changes happening in omni-channel retail where the customer is king, and the rise of Big Data.

“If you put digital in a silo and park it that’s how you fail. Actually this is really about a journey the whole business goes on, both internally and externally – how these different groups embrace digital and interact with it.”

All on board

Cornwell says at Travelex there is this commitment, as expressed by CEO Jackson, to go on this digital journey.

“Our chairman, CEO, CFO, our HR director – they completely get it, embrace it and understand it,” Cornwell said. “The spaces Travelex are in will change drastically over the next 10 years.

“If we did nothing as a business we’d have serious challenges, and we need to transform they way we do business over that period.

“And I have a very good relationship with the CIO. We also need to know how do we tackle this and go on this journey together, and get to a place where we have the capabilities and needs to do what we need to do.”