Many years ago I was responsible for building an IT system to model avionic lifecycle costs. It was a pre-Windows world so that gives you a sense of the meaning of 'many years'. The underlying algorithm was both complex and had a habit of crashing the PC with its RAM expectations. This added to the challenge. We were using development tools that enabled us to simulate Windows in a DOS environment. It was clunky but colourful.

When the customer came to inspect our progress they were blown away by the user interface and passed little comment on the processing element of the system. This was a shock to us in the team because we saw the user interface as the icing on what was a non-trivial cake. From then on I realised that user interface development was not a branch of software development created purely to give people with no logic skills an opportunity.

Today we are seeing this being played out on a grander scale. With a focus on the customer, citizen and employee experience all eyes are on the user interface. In respect of new technology the user interface (device and software) are increasingly considered as the 'digital' end of IT.

In other words, digital is the interesting end of IT. And now that the boardroom has made the connection between profit, service experience and IT they want to make digital part of the business strategy.

By appointing a Chief Digital Officer they are thus saying they need a digital strategy more than they need an IT strategy. Anyone who has a background in architectural design will know that this is potentially a car crash in the making.

There are four scenarios that will greet the arrival of the CDO:

  • The CDO is a peer of the CIO.
  • The CDO works for the CIO.
  • The CIO works for the CDO.
  • The CIO is asked to leave.

Looking at these in turn.

CIO and CDO as peers is the worst possible outcome. With two distinct strategies it will be akin to building HS2 with two consortia each starting at either end of the proposed route. In the absence of overall leadership they have chosen different track gauges. In fact SNCF's train – platform overlap is a less theoretical example. Where the CDO and CIOs are peers their respective strategies are unlikely to be 'joined up'.

The CDO working for the CIO makes sense if the CIO is a boardroom member. Given the importance of digital it is unlikely the leadership team will want to be several management layers removed from the digital action if the CIO is reporting in to say the CFO.

The CIO working for the CDO seems more likely given the current absence of digital leadership in the majority of boardrooms. Building systems with the user experience at the heart of the technology investment makes a lot of sense. Some CIOs will perhaps appreciate enforced exile to the data centre as that is where they grew up and that is where their people roam.

The increasing capability of the cloud to virtualise the messy elements of IT and the slowly increasing ability of IT service companies to deliver business services as opposed to just storage, processing power and possibly standalone apps will in time obviate the need for a technology management function. So the CIO being asked to leave is a reality; but not at this very moment. What will likely happen is that the role will be renamed to reflect the technology focus and their distance from the boardroom. 'IT manager' comes to mind.

In respect of all four of these scenarios, the CEO doesn't care who does what as long as both the digital experience and IT management are taken care of. What they should care about is the danger of making the CIO and CDO peers.

But there is of course a fifth scenario: The CIO anticipates the arrival of the CDO and makes the case to take on that responsibility. This will be attractive to the CEO who wants to keep the top team headcount down.
However you need to consider whether your personal brand and capabilities make this a risk-free option for the CEO. I encourage CIOs to take stock of their current skill set and of how they and their IT function are perceived by the users. The next step is to establish whether this baseline is sufficient to lead to the best outcome for you and your organisation.

If it is not then job number one is to develop the capabilities that improve both your competence and your user interface so to speak. Unless the users find that dealing with you and your people is a great experience you may find that, at best, you have a new boss wedged in between you and your current boss.