by Shantheri Mallaya

The Rise of the Chief Executive Digital Officer

Nov 11, 2019

johnson johnson runners race digital transformation agile
Credit: Getty Images

Recently during one of my meetings with writer, consultant, and speaker, Jaspreet Bindra, among the many interesting nuggets he shared, he stated that the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) was no longer the one man designated to bring about the digital transformation in an organization – he stated clearly that the CEO is the new de-facto Chief Executive Digital Officer (CEDO), in the sense that it is the CEO’s mandate to own Mission Digital.  

Coming to think of it, the observation is not only true, but also quite game changing in the way an organization constructs its digital vision. I have heard from numerous digital leaders that their CEOs were largely instrumental in fuelling the digital plan for their businesses. Perhaps, this has always been true in the way we looked at CEO vision, but the technology economy adds a special dimension to the top executive role.

Recent examples of a CEO who envisioned the Indian movie goer experience in a chain of multiplexes through luxury “experiential formats”, and also how a realtor CEO is looking at changing the entire “viewing” experience of prospective buyers, are clear examples to this point.

A MIT Sloan Review found that a massive 41% of digitally mature companies put the responsibility of digital transformation with the CEO.

Taking this hypothesis further, organizations are fast realising that the digital transformation is exactly where the CEO’s focus is needed. So, when firms are hiring a new CEO, they are typically looking for someone capable of taking on the CDO role – rather than someone who will delegate such a critical responsibility. So, emerges the CEDO.

So, is the role of the CDO irrelevant?

In his recently launched book, “The Tech Whisperer”, Bindra recommends that the CEO as owner of digital transformation does need a lieutenant who would carry out his missive – and that is typically a CDO.

Typically, CDOs report to the CEO of a business and by themselves don’t have   the authority to commit resources, or at least not with the immediacy that’s required.

While this is a relatively new role, I have personally been in conversation with a few CDOs who are doing remarkable work within their organizations, and have carried their digital organizations with autonomy and vigour. However, it does remain that a company has turned the corner when the digital innovation no longer comes from the CDO and the digital department, but goes into the LOB. While seeing it in specific milieus, the rate of irrelevance of a CDO might be slower in some industries than in some others. The CDO either must then shift to more of a CTO role overseeing digital operations or find another CDO opportunity elsewhere.

Or, interestingly, the CDO could transition into the CEO role. At least, in some industries, there may be more room for this, like in BFSI, e-commerce (most founding CEOs are technologists themselves) or in digital media. Author Bindra observes that even in the Indian context, the CDO role can eventually evolve into Chief Strategy Officer or into CEDO.

But a good CEDO (Chief Executive Digital Officer) is more than just a digital advocate. The goal isn’t so much to drive digital as it is to grow the entire business. One can expect to see more such transitions in Indian organizations.