by Martha Heller

The CIO as Digital Pathfinder

Apr 09, 20146 mins
CareersCIOIT Jobs

Jeff Donaldson, once CIO of GameStop, now focuses 100 percent of his time on innovation.

Jeff Donaldson, GameStop, CIO
The CIO Executive Council has coined a new phrase: “Digital Pathfinder.”

The Digital Pathfinder is that one executive who provides digital literacy and strategy to the C-suite, breaking down functional silos and transforming the C-suite to a “D-suite.”  A D-suite has its eyes on the company’s digital future and proactively leverages digital technologies for commercial success.

While many CEOs are placing Chief Marketing Officers and Chief Product Officers in the digital pathfinder role, CIOs – says the CIO Executive Council – are best positioned for digital leadership. Of all of a company’s executives, the CIO is most accustomed to having the horizontal view necessary to break down the silos that can exist between functional heads; and of course, the CIO has the requisite technology knowledge to chart a company’s digital path.

Jeff Donaldson, CIO turned head of technology innovation and discovery for GameStop, and the driver of the company’s new GameStop Technology Institute, is a great example of a digital pathfinder.

The GameStop Technology Institute

On March 25, GameStop launched the GameStop Technology Institute, (GTI) which is partnering with providers like IBM and academic institutions like the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School to drive innovation in customer experience in the retail space.

Donaldson, who served as CIO of GameStop since 2000, has taken on a new assignment to chair and serve as senior vice president of GTI. 

The initial focus of the institute will be to create a digital experience for the retail customer in the store environment. “Our goal is to digitize the physical retail space to allow customers to interact with brick-n-mortar stores in ways that mimic interaction with digital platforms,” say Donaldson.

Let’s say you go online to your favorite retailor and add items to your wish list.  Then, you visit the physical store and as you walk past a sale rack, a digital sign says, “Mary! Your #1 wish list item is on sale in this store!” 

“That kind of personal information is tough for a sales associate to deliver,” says Donaldson.  “An associate can’t walk up to a customer in a store and present them with personal information about their favorite items. But we have that data, and we want you to have it in the store; so we have to find a digital way to present it to you.”

Customers are sensitive, and customers are demanding, and retailers need to get moving to get new products like in-store digital signage right.  GameStop knows that it cannot get ahead of the innovation curve by going it alone. “We formed GTI to innovate with our own customer experience,” says Donaldson, “But we also want to help other retailors to do the same.  We plan to be open and collaborative about what we learn. You cannot drive an accelerated pace of change and be internal.” For that reason GameStop is looking to affiliating with major technology companies, VC backed start-ups, academic institutions and with retail organizations that are like minded about pursuing innovation.

(On that note, if you are CIO of a retail organization and you would like to get in touch with Jeff, email me and I’ll make the connection.)

Innovation is not a part time job

But with GameStop’s former CIO turning his attention to GTI, what becomes of the IT organization? Who is looking after business systems development?  Who is accountable for operations? “Most IT departments are struggling with how to define their role in innovation,” says Donaldson. “They have to balance their operational responsibilities with this new forward-looking role. The problem with this balancing approach is that innovation is not a part time job.  It’s not something that you do with 20 percent of your time.”

For that reason, GameStop has redesigned its IT organization and appointed four executives, peers to one another, over the following functions:  Innovation (GTI, led by Donaldson), Strategy (to build roadmaps for back-office and front-office technology investments, led by Darren Daley, Vice President of Enterprise Strategy & Program Management), Architecture (to lead a small group of domain experts in ensuring that all systems are moving toward common standards and platforms, led by Mark Patton, Vice President of Enterprise Architecture) and Delivery (execution and operations, led by Michael Cooper, Senior Vice President of IT Delivery).

“In order to produce a new approach to innovation, we had to do something unconventional,” says Donaldson. “Rather than dilute our traditional IT organizational structure and have one team spread too thin, we have come up with a new structure that ensures we have a senior leader 100 percent dedicated to each IT function.”


Splitting up your IT organization into a four-leader structure is a big move.  Donaldson has some advice.

Be courageous: As CIO, you have always defined your value by what you deliver. “But if you shift your role to focus all of your time on innovation, you will be judged in new ways,” says Donaldson. “Now, you define your value on how well you propel your business forward. You have to have the courage to take the leap and redefine who you are as a leader.”

Let go of operations: Any CIO who has spent a career running operations will be tempted to jump in when operational issues arise. “You have to accept that you no longer have accountability for operations,” says Donaldson. “That role belongs to another executive now.”

I find the Digital Pathfinder concept to be useful and I plan to return to it again in this blog. It will be interesting to see, over the next 12 months, which CIOs, like Donaldson, take on that digital leadership position, how they structure their roles for success, and what approaches they take to turn their executive suite into a cohesive team all working toward their company’s digital future.

About GameStop Corp.

GameStop Corp. (NYSE: GME), a Fortune 500 and S&P 500 company headquartered in Grapevine, Texas, is a global, multichannel video game, consumer electronics, and wireless services retailer. GameStop operates more than 6,600 stores across 15 countries. The company’s consumer product network also includes;, a leading browser-based game site; Game Informer® magazine, the world’s leading print and digital video game publication;, an online consumer electronics trade-in platform; Spring Mobile, an authorized dealer of AT&T wireless services; and Simply Mac, the largest certified retailer of Apple’s full line of products.