The Role of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) by Paul Allen, Head of Transformation & Change at Comotion

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The latest Digital Leaders Think Tank was hosted on Wednesday 18June at Telefonica’s Air Street offices in London, and we were grateful to Chris Boyd – Head of Digital Transformation at Telefonica – for hosting the day in such an inspiring and thought-provoking venue.

As usual there was a wide and varied representation of global brands and household names, including QBE Insurance, Sodexho, Pitmans LLP, BP / Castrol, Smith & Nephew as well as representation from the public sector, and a number of niche advisories and consulting organisations. The debate was lively and varied, and a number of key conclusions were reached at the end of the session.


The discussion began with a ‘round-robin’ style challenge to all participants around their view(s) on the role of the CDO. A number of themes emerged; including discussions on the scope of the role, who typically ‘initiates’ a search for such a such a role; the capabilities required and the challenges the role may face. In the below post-event briefing note I have attempted to outline these themes.

The CDO role: how big ?

The group began with a lively debate around ‘what’ the role actually does. A number of participants believed the role was ‘MarComms’ (marketing and communications) focused, whilst others leant towards a view that the role was much more technical – in essence a souped-up CTO role, which required a broad knowledge and view of infrastructure and platforms. Irrespective of where participants sat on the spectrum all agreed the potential portfolio of accountability was large, and that the role was senior enough to merit i) board level sponsorship and ii) potentially board level membership, and if not that – certainly ‘ExCo’ or ‘LT’ level membership. After some debate the group landed on the concept of a role which both ‘faced out’ to manage a commercial agenda and ‘faced in’ to manage a change agenda, and broadly had the following areas of accountability:

o ‘Expansion’ Leader: CDO’s, the group believed, were there in many respects to ensure that digital – as a concept – becomes a cornerstone to an organisation, not a nice to have – and that from a channel perspective the leap from classical to more digitally orientated channels occurred. For many organisations, digital represents their newest and fastest potential revenue-stream (in either B2B or B2C) and there were numerous examples throughout the day of new applications being delivered by the web, mobile apps and ‘wearable’ technology (the internet of things). Participants saw the CDO role as key to driving this, and key to enhancing overall customer experiences.


o Infrastructure Builder: a number of the group recognised the CDO’s value in ensuring that what was required to deliver a more expansive set of products and services, via different channels, was an individual with knowledge and capability around Infrastructure. “Platform as a Service” (PAAS) was referenced a number of times – in essence the ability for an organisation to create a set of relevant platforms and underlying applications or technologies on which software, tooling and applications could be deployed. Participants noted that the basics of ensuring technology enablement were in place was a challenge in more established organisations – and that the CDO had a key role to play in executing such change.

o Compliance Supporter: the group discussed the challenges that so many new technologies and platforms are bringing to organisations in today’s world, and the regulatory & compliance risks and issues that this poses. A number of participants shared examples of employee behaviours and ‘incidents’ which have occurred via digital channels, often on “Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)” technologies, which go some way to demonstrating the importance of having a single point of accountability for digitally-related legal, compliance and risk management issues. Particularly from an internal perspective.

o Change Champion: by far and away however the strongest area of agreement was the need for any CDO to be i) a strong generalist manager and ii) a change leader in themselves. Participants were unanimous that the role was one which anchors ‘digital’ into the organisation – meaning that all were in alignment that strong change management and stakeholder skills were an absolute must have – for any individual in this role. The individual must, in short, act as a lightning rod for digitally driven change.

o P&L Owner: finally participants discussed the importance of CDO’s “owning” a P&L, and indeed some examples of this were brought to bear in the room. The challenge of tracking and ensuring a return on investment for outlay in ‘digital’ was discussed. All agreed this was a tough brief; and all agreed that isolating and tracking ROI in digital was difficult, particularly in the MarComms and PR / Sponsorship space.

Who Initiates the Conversation?

The group then debated where the demand for the CDO is typically derived. Was it from the Marketing team ? The PR people ? The Internal Comms Group ? The technology function ? Or at a higher level – from the CEO itself ? In short there appeared to be no simple answer, and numerous examples of demand generation for the role from a number of areas. What participants did agree on however, was that for the role to be successful it must be a board-level supported appointment; have scope to be (in many respects) ambiguous initially – and with a certain degree of freedom and float to determine where best it will add value and that any CDO will need to have a resources conversation as to parts of the organisation which may potentially be subsumed into her / his portfolio, upon appointment – or thereafter.

The group also discussed where such CDO’s are found. Several participants noted that candidates for such a role are scarce, and as such are commanding premiums in terms of salary and packages.


The CDO : broad shoulders required…

Finally, the group discussed the capabilities required in a CDO – a number of characteristics and experience areas were identified. Initially, the group debated where, historically, they have seen most CDO’s emerge from. A number of individuals had seen colleagues with prior marketing, communication and PR expertise elevated to the role – whilst others at seen previous CIO’s, CTO’s and IS leads elevated in this role (often at board level). Participants agreed that digital savviness and a passion for technology, particularly emerging technologies, were key. The question as to whether a ‘deep techie’ was required was debated. Did a CDO need to understand the nuances of Infrastructure ? Platforms ? Packages ? Did they need to be as comfortable in a server room as they were in the boardroom ? Participants noted ‘probably not’.

The key was a strong appreciation of technology, an ability to innovate and to push innovation and the requisite experience to guide the organisation to make the right commercial decisions – to put digital at the heart and centre of the organisations. Change savviness was thus noted to be key: experience in previous large-scale transformation was deemed to be a must, as was a level of comfort and willingness to get out and interact with all parts of the organisation (at all levels). Finally, the group agreed that a strong customer focus – in terms of customer experience, and an understanding of how digital supports this, was an absolute.

Overall then another excellent DLTT session, and thanks of course to Colm Hannon – who heads up the DLTT – for his excellent organisation and facilitation on the day.

Paul Allen is Head of Transformation & Change at Comotion – a cogency (consulting-agency) specialising in Customer-led Strategy, Design and Transformation. Find out more at

The DLTT (Digital Leaders Think Tank) was established in 2009 and is a global leadership forum of some of the world’s most successful brands. Individuals from organisations across a variety of sectors come together to discuss and debate the digital agenda at events across the UK, Europe, Asia-Pac and Americas. Find out more at