The role of chief digital officer (CDO) is increasingly being promoted as the answer to all things digital; last year Gartner predicted that 25% of companies will have a CDO by 2015. Now, it’s worth noting that Gartner has produced a lot of research about the CDO role over the last year so it could be said that the company has a vested interested in the growth of the role. And given Gartner’s reputation and influence on executives across the world, its prediction about the CDO role could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A quick review of the many articles published recently about CDOs shows there is no clear or standard definition of the role; driving digital transformation of the entire organisation, heading up a new digital business unit or leading the digitisation of content are all examples of a CDO’s remit.

Some of these examples make more sense than others. For example, media companies looking to move all their content online or create online products and services are likely to need someone to lead this type of initiative. But whether it should be a C-level role or indeed whether it needs to be a permanent position is open to debate. In some cases the need for a CDO role and the variable remit it is given may be indicative of deeper problems within the wider organisation rather than a genuine need for a role dedicated to all things digital. Symptoms of these wider problems will include one or more of the following:

  • A CIO and IT department that is technically focused and not engaged with their key stakeholders.
  • A CMO and marketing department that is not embracing digital channels and tools as an integral part of the wider marketing activity.
  • A breakdown in the CIO/CMO and IT/marketing relationships resulting in limited engagement and shadow IT activity.
  • A C-suite or executive team that doesn’t ‘get’ digital (or even technology), seeing it simply as an add-on or optional extra to the core business.
  • The existence of a stand-alone ‘digital strategy’ instead of digital being viewed as an integral part of the core business strategy.

So, faced with any combination of the above but knowing that digital is in some way important to the future of the business, what is a CEO or board going to do? Why not consult one of the world’s largest and most respected research companies and see what its advice is on tackling digital? The result is likely to be an ill-defined CDO role that is likely to cut across the remit of the other CxOs, creating the potential for confusion and conflict.

The failure of companies to develop, evolve and enhance the skills and experience of their senior team is resulting in poor understanding or, in some cases, outright ignorance at the executive level of what digital means to their business. This is undoubtedly contributing to the rise of the CDO role, which is in danger of being viewed as the solution to any digital problem and not as a solution to a specific need. Unless CEOs and their boards realise this and tackle the underlying problems within their organisations, then Gartner’s prediction will indeed become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and they will be playing catch-up to competitors that do understand digital.