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The Paradoxical Role of the CDO

A Saïd Business School report throws light on the complex challenges facing the Chief Digital Officer

 

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As companies upskill their workforces to meet the challenge of digital transformation and face a future defined by AI, machine learning, and Industry 4.0, many large organizations have taken the bold step of appointing a Chief Digital Officer (CDO). These ‘Digitisation Czars’ have been asked to take a corporate level approach to digital transformation, focusing on everything that is up for being digitised across the organization.

Theirs is a role distinct from and with a broader perspective than that of their CIO (Chief Information Officer) and CTO (Chief Technical Officer) colleagues. They are supposed to introduce new technological processes and infrastructure and instil new ways of working across a diverse range of activities from marketing, to production and supply chain management, to finance and HR.

But, although the CDO may occupy a pivotal position, this is usually not seen as a ‘forever’ role, rather one that will disappear once an agile organizational culture, able to assimilate further digital change, has been put in place.

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The CDO can be a positive force for change and innovation at a time when huge advances in technology are opening up exciting opportunities for business growth into new markets and through developing new business models and more effective technology-enabled ways of working.

However, the role of the CDO is not well understood.

In a new study, The CDO Report, published by Oxford’s Saïd Business School and digital learning company General Assembly, 41 CDOs from 13 countries were interviewed to understand the outlook, aspirations, and challenges facing people occupying this relatively new position, with a view to helping all CDOs succeed.

There is no consensus on where the role should sit in the organizational structure, or even what a CDO does. Our study reinforces this lack of clarity around the role and also reveals a wide range of tensions and paradoxes that shed light on the challenges of transforming ‘analogue’ organizations in a digital world,” says the report’s lead author Gillian Brooks, Oxford Saïd.

Challenges identified in the report include:

  • CDOs are having to do the job and define the role at the same time. Unlike the CEO, CFO, or COO, there is no shared understanding of what they are supposed to do or how they are supposed to do it.
  • While they have ‘digital’ in their title, CDOs say the role is about managing business transformations, which demands strategic and people skills more than technology.
  • As Chief Digital Officer they are part of the C-Suite but they have no formal mandate for the profound changes they are championing, which makes them highly dependent on the support of the CEO. If the CEO is not fully ‘on board’, nothing gets done.
  • CDOs have to manage a range of contradictions and paradoxes. E.g. While digital transformation has a fundamental and long-lasting impact on the organization, the CDO role itself is transient.
  • While they are in a better position to champion radical change as a relative outsider, in order to make the change happen they need carefully to develop relationships and build credibility as an insider.

With a role that can be ill-defined and not well understood by their colleagues and even themselves, CDOs have a complex and challenging job. So, what are the prerequisites for success? According to the authors of this report the most successful CDOs are those who are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity and able to embrace complexity and paradox by finding ways to make seemingly incongruent, contradictory elements of their roles fit together.

Looking on the positive side, the researchers say that the majority of CDOs interviewed for this study have flourished and are successful, and based on their finding they offer five key lessons for CDO success:

1. Simplify by turning contradictions into complements. This is a complexity-reduction strategy that can work well. In essence, the more challenging, complex, and confusing an environment, the greater the need for simplification.

2. Wear different hats to relate to different audiences. CDOs have to switch between integrator, translator, and disrupter personas—and also combine them sometimes—in order to be effective with different audiences inside and outside their organizations.

3. Make sure your boss—and your boss’s boss—'get it’. Ensure that CEOs and other senior executives understood what the transformations are all about, when dealing with transformation, particularly involving technology.

4. Never allow jargon and technical aspects get in the way. Find ways to cut through jargon and technical information to allow more effective communication with broader sets of audiences. This is essential for driving a comprehensive transformation agenda

5. Be a protagonist for something. CDOs are successful when they stand for something. Even when that something is inherently nebulous—‘digital’ can be a lot of things—they articulate a point of view and take a stand. This requires a strong sense of purpose and belief in what one is doing. But to enact transformative change, it must be clear to everyone what your point of view is and the direction in which you are heading.

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Read the full report here: Understanding Chief Digital Officers: Paradoxical Protagonists of Digital Transformation. The Oxford Chief Digital Officer Report, created in partnership with General Assembly.

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Oxford Saïd has launched two new programs in the marketing and digital area. The first is the Oxford Digital Marketing: Disruptive Strategy Program, a marketing-focused digital transformation program that helps marketers with the challenge of understanding the more complex customer of the future. It is delivered online over 8-weeks.

The second is Driving Disruptive Growth, a short 4-day program at the school, designed to inspire senior leaders to reflect on change and disruption and turn it into new and unique opportunities to create value for today’s and tomorrow’s customers, and drive business growth.


The Saïd Business School is Europe’s fastest growing business school. An integral part of the University of Oxford, it embodies the academic rigour and forward thinking that has made Oxford a world leader in education.



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