For some time I’ve struggled to take job titles particularly seriously, but I was keen to refer to myself as something other than “founder” on LinkedIn because it’s just a bit naff. In the end, after much thought, I went for the flippancy option and now am entitled Chief <Insert Buzzword du Jour> Officer on the social network, and hope enough people realise that it’s done with tongue firmly in cheek.
I do realise, though, that a lot of people take it very seriously indeed. None more so, it seems, than those at the top of organisations – particularly when the nomenclature is of the moment (which is partly what I’m poking fun at with my LinkedIn activity). The world of digital and technology in organisations seems to be focusing now on the emergence of a new Chief Officer, the Chief Digital Officer – and there is much conversation within the Chief Information Officer world as to whether the CDO might offer a lifeline to a board position seemingly in decline.
“Digital” is one of those terms that means a little, means a lot, and tends to have different meanings to different communities. It’s something I’m going to be exploring more in the new year (a starter can be found here) but one thing I’m convinced of is that a good Chief Digital Officer will be one with a finite term of office – after which their work will be done and the role will disappear. I fear, however, that the rise in the CDO will just end up with even less co-ordination of this new stuff we call digital with yet another big cheese at the top table trying to push their weight around.
Today, in many organisations, we find responsibility and accountability for things digital liberally distributed around the boardroom: marketing have a say, IT maybe involved, customer service operations may well being doing things, as will product or service development, HR (for digital within the enterprise), Legal… the list goes on. Often those initiatives will be upon competing objectives, mirroring the siloed nature of many bigger (and some smaller) companies.
This is in turn based on a few core assumptions that appear to hold as truth within many businesses: internal and external communication should be separate (HR and internal comms on the former, marketing, PR, sales and service operations on the latter); that business to consumer marketing is the rich cousin to business to business marketing, despite the fact that most organisations are business to business; and that communications are broadcast and controlled, “cascading” though tiers of management despite decades of “delayering”.
If you start to challenge some of those assumptions, as I believe the rise of social networks, the Internet and smart consumer devices has a tendency to, then it strikes me that the role of the CDO should be to help everyone across an organisation deliver their contribution in ways that take advantage of the new possibilities we have open to us, but that should be a role that eventually becomes redundant.
The risk, however, is that the CDO becomes just yet another person at the top with their own digital agenda. Think of the challenges that CIOs currently have getting their heads around how to manage the emergence of technology not under central control (the infamous “shadow IT”). The CDO, though, will be in competition with marketing, IT, HR and so on – and without an established base from which to work. And, of course, people working at the CxO level seem to disproportionately enjoy acting in competition rather than in collaboration…