The chief digital officer role is already heading toward extinction

The CDO job is going the way of the dinosaur.
The CDO job is going the way of the dinosaur.
Image: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski
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As e-commerce eats up a growing share of retail, streaming takes over entertainment, and social media exerts its hold on pretty much everything, the chief digital officer once seemed a critical position in any company that wanted to remain relevant.

The trend looks to be on its way out, though. According to Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting group, the rate at which companies have been creating positions for a chief digital officer, or CDO, has slowed to a trickle.

The firm, which examined hiring and the role of the CDO at the 2,500 largest publicly traded companies last year, found that just 54 companies, or 2.2%, had created a new CDO position in 2018. That was down from 124 in 2017, and 160 in 2016. “We can now say that 2016 was the high-water mark in CDO hiring,” the firm said in a blog post.

The reason is not, however, because companies overestimated the value of becoming digitally fluent. It’s because, these days, that job is the responsibility of the entire organization. A few years ago, when the number of CDOs was on the rise, it reflected an understanding among companies that they needed to ditch old, pre-digital mindsets and transform how they did business. Many took a top-down approach, appointing an executive to oversee the process.

Today, however, being set up for business in a digital world can’t be one person’s job. “Leaders at many companies now believe that putting a single person in charge of digital transformation may not be the best approach, because it is an intrinsic strategic priority across the whole business as agility becomes critical to survival,”  the blog post by Strategy&’s Pierre Péladeau and Olaf Acker pointed out. “The CDO role no longer leads a discrete function.”

Ian Rogers, the chief digital officer of luxury giant LVMH, made this point strongly in an interview with Wired UK in November, saying that having the word “digital” in someone’s job title, including his own, is redundant. He added:

Scott Galloway at L2 said, “Having a chief digital officer is like having a chief electricity officer.” I think that that’s really accurate. What you’re doing is, you’re using this somewhat technical term to mask the fact that your customer’s behaviours have changed. You need to elevate technology inside of your organisation.

And that vision seems to be materializing. Strategy& found that, in the past, the CDO was often someone who played a customer-facing function, with expertise in marketing, customer service, or sales. But there’s been a good deal of turnover in those jobs, as now companies want someone with a background in technology who can make it a core component of how the whole company operates, rather than having it isolated to specific projects.

The next step, Strategy& predicts, is for the CDO role to disappear entirely. In fact, if a company doesn’t have a CDO already, the consulting firm counsels, it should hesitate to create the role now. Rather, each member of the C-suite should be handling the digitization job in the parts of the business under their watch.