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Last year, CIO UK wrote how research firm Forrester predicted that CIOs would make the Chief Digital Officer role obsolete with changes to recruitment practices and digital business models. However, according to Harvey Nash, more than half of large organisations have a CDO (Chief Digital Officer) in place. 

A CIO's and a CDO's responsibilities deal with different aspects of the business while, of course in part, their roles can overlap. 

CIO UK takes a look at the differences between a CIO and a CDO and how they can both boost profits for the company. (Read next: Skills the CIO wants from the CDO.)

What is a CDO?

Digital technology has transformed business models and IT departments of some major organisations. And their business strategies have become reliant on both the roles of a CIO and a CDO to drive success within the organisation.

A quarter of all organisations have a Chief Digital Officer in post, says Harvey Nash, with three times as many CDOs around as there were three years ago. With more than half of large organisations fulfilling the CDO role.

Within some organisations, the CDO and CIO roles can become blurred if they don't have a clear division of responsibilities. Clear reporting lines are also critical. 

Dependent on the sector a CDO can implement digital transformation which can free a CIO’s time to focus on operating IT.

The CDO’s responsibility is to experiment with new business tools and develop digital skills across the workforce. Typically the CDO would report to the CIO.

In 2017, Defra was advertising for a Chief Digital Officer reporting to Group CTO John Seglias with a salary of £115,000.

And according to Harvey Hash, the average salary for a Chief Digital Officer is $175,303 worldwide (£125.303) while in the UK they earn on average $167,321 (£119.980)

Robert Half, Food Standards Agency and Michael Page UK are all looking to hire CDOs, according to Glassdoor, who will set a digital strategy across its organisations. 

A challenge a CDO and a CIO can face together is overseeing the digital strategy.

A CIO's leadership skills have developed in aligning themselves with executives to produce a digital strategy for the company.

The responsibility has increased in creating an efficient platform for users through digital innovation. Working with a focused CDO can help the CIO achieve this. 

Blurring of roles

In some companies, the CIO and a CDO are clearly defined and understood by their fellow executives.

The CIO influences digital decisions while also overseeing the IT operation across the workforce. A CDO can be seen as a supporting role to the CIO in developing digital initiatives to help the organisation.

Executives need to clearly define the two roles to keep the business structure running smoothly. Organisations need to combine the two IT leading responsibilities to drive value and boost profits.

The role of a CDO remains influential in IT with recent appointments made by The Mayor of London, Nike and Deutsche Bank all aiming to help drive digital transformation.

Low Cost Travel Group’s former CTO Franceso De Marchis saw a CDO’s digital offerings enabling a new generation of CIOs in business today, combining the roles of a CDO and CIO.

“Being a CIO in the digital era means that I must bridge the gap between business and technology in a way that helps the business take a leap forward,” he said. “I am the evangelist of what technology can bring to the table to enhance and expand the company roadmap and get closer to our customer’s needs."

A CDO’s main priorities will focus on the latest technological innovations while also improving customer engagement. A CIO can focus on making IT investments and cutting costs, while both roles support each other. (See also: What's the difference between a CIO and a CTO?

Making way for a CDO

The CDO can take up the responsibility of a CIO when implementing a new business model. The CDO will align the digital and consumer world to create an efficient platform for users.

CIO 100 organisations including The Economist and NHS Blood and Transport have hired Chief Digital Officers; with Belron’s Chief Information and Digital Officer Nick Burton believing CDOs can “understand the approaches to digital” to help drive innovation. (See also: Belron focusing on Big Data and cloud to improve customer experience.)

CDOs can bridge the gap between the CIO and the marketing department by focusing on meeting the customer’s needs through digital products.

As the Chief Digital Officer role emerges in the C-suite today, Sharon Cooper has seen her promotion from CTO to CDO enforce several changes at medical journal BMJ.

“[My promotion] has led to the responsibility for our experience/R&D lab, a venture I helped set up two years ago, as well as direct P&L responsibility for one of our key digital portfolios,” she said.

Cooper has seen her appointment allow her to play a key role in every executive decision they make at BMJ.

“Running the technology team which develops those products, predominantly in-house, can help shape every product and its experience ensuring it meets the customer and business needs.”

The two IT roles need to work together to achieve success in the business with both CIOs and CDOs communicating and working collaboratively to implement a digital strategy. 

Comments from leading CDOs and experts

Last year, CIO UK shared its tips on becoming a Chief Digital Officer, citing communication and a data focus as ways of earning credibility in the role. While getting first-hand experience from customers is vital in understanding the business it can also help CDO’s meet growing user demands.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan recently recruited Theo Blackwell as a Chief Digital Officer. It will see the CDO work with the Mayor’s Office, local authorities and the technology sector to help push London’s digital services to the next level.

See London's first Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell discuss the importance of data in building a Smart London

"The new Chief Digital Officer post is an amazing opportunity to make our capital even more open to innovation, support jobs and investment and make our public services more effective.

"The pace of change over the next decade requires public services to develop a stronger relationship with the tech sector. Our purpose is to fully harness London's world-class potential to make our public services faster and more reliable at doing things we expect online, but also adaptable enough to overcome the capital's most complex challenges."
Theo Blackwell, Mayor of London Chief Digital Officer


"My objective is revenue, strategy, customer loyalty and the brand. The difference is that the CTO role was more about delivering products, this is still about delivering products, but there is a greater focus on strategic decisions so I am working with marketing, sales and editorial to create a blueprint for the digital business."

Jora Gill, The Economist Chief Digital Officer


"You could say I'm the bandleader. I don't get caught up on the title; in some cases the CIO will fulfil this kind role and may not change the title."
Bill Ruh, GE Chief Digital Officer


“I'd be tempted to say that if all companies were digital throughout, then there wouldn't be a CDO role, but as I think it means different things to different companies, then it will still be a change agent, wherever it sits in the organisation, whether it's called a CDO or something else.”
Sharon Cooper, BMJ Chief Digital Officer



"It is not about the technology, this part is simpler. The real challenges are coming from selling the idea of digital to the company, but not the board because they are already on board, but finding out how to use digital technology to rethink completely the way we do things."
Malika Mir, Ipsen Chief Information and Digital Officer


“Technology and digital are now firmly at the heart of what we do, and my role has been largely to inspire and enable my colleagues to think about the range of possibilities that technology might offer them in their business units.”
Aaron Powell, NHS Blood and Transplant Chief Digital Officer


“I want to create a virus for change, a virus for innovation."
Martyn Wallace, Scottish Local Government Chief Digital Officer