A CDO’s journey to the end of the hell of digital transformation

@Cyril Bladier
23 October 2019

Caroline has just been appointed CDO (Chief Digital Officer) of the business, for which she has been working. CDOs emerged in the USA in the 2010s and Europe from Spring 2014 onwards. Funnily enough, as Forrester’s Thomas Husson pointed out in a recent report, CDOs are far more flavor of the month on the old continent. The position, this side of the Atlantic, had become quite fashionable: all businesses wanted their CDO, and being a CDO had become a common goal for top job seekers. As to mastering digital skills is a horse of a different color. As we are nearing 2020, rumor has it that CDOs are so much last year, that they are no longer needed, that CDOs do not suffice, and so on. These are signs that companies are still trying to find their digital footing and are far from having discovered the silver digital transformation bullet.

CDO: What does that mean?

As a CDO, Caroline will have to work cross-organizationally. She will aim to bring transformational initiatives to fruition. This also means collaborating across the various silos of any given organization. If the company is earnest about transforming itself and having a business impact thanks to digital technology, teams with possibly conflicting objectives will have to work jointly. Sales with marketing, marketing with IT, Sales with Product development and Innovation, etc. This requires serious alignment revolving around such digital undertakings. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s plain sailing.

In the early days of digital transformation, digital was reporting to IT, then Marketing and at last Sales. No solution has yielded any compelling results, however. Ideally, Caroline should report to the top executive or even be part of the executive committee. No wonder CDOs are perceived as real digital champions.

CDOs: digital transformation silver bullet do no exist

There are no digital miracle men or women. Businesses are trying to solve all their digital transformation issues with a silver bullet, and expectations are very high, but CDOs are only human. So is Caroline. Barring exceptions, she can’t be expected to solve all the problems associated with digital, be they within or outside the business.

European incubator/accelerator The Family’s Rodolphe Roux — himself a former multiple-time CDO — is adamant: “There is no such thing as a Digital Hero,” he declared. Despite Google’s amanwhotweets’ digital agenda.

On the one hand, the organization’s expectations are very high. On the other hand, Caroline, as a newly appointed CDO, does feel a little euphoric due to the sheer significance of her role. Her ambitions, ideas, and projects are boundless. Yet, in the end, there is a significant risk of a considerable gap between what the organization was expecting and what Caroline will be available to deliver.

Caroline’s morale will undoubtedly suffer from that: the divide between lip service, early promises, objectives, and the leeway granted to Caroline. CDOs are indeed often caught between the internal change resistance hammer and the power struggle hard plate.

This is why transformation pace is slow. Dreadfully slow despite intentions.

The lesser of two evils

As explained in another piece on this blog, CDOs can be chosen internally or recruited externally. The boss realizes that digital matters to herself and her organization. She then pinpoints a high potential profile internally, who has proven results and adheres to corporate culture. Yet, in the face of new challenges, the latter’s performance dwindles. Alternatively, the boss injects new blood, possibly a successful start-upper, a disruptor. The recruit is so enthusiastic, and her ideas are so innovative, and yet, the results aren’t that impressive. Technology, tools, resources, and even ideas aren’t the heart of the matter. It’s all about change, in fact.

Providential men or women have their downsides

Someone who wants to disrupt the way of working within a business is bound to hurt a few feelings. That is why CDOs must be part of the exec committee and receive strong support from the board and the CEO, not just in words but in the field. Lip service will not suffice. Failure to do so will almost invariably lead the CDO to give up hope after two years of working in isolation and quit.

Break silos: how is it done?

The expression became TT (Trending Topic) with digital transformation. First and foremost, one should wonder why silos ever existed. They are the result of the industrialization of processes for the sake of fast-paced modernization. Each silo was working rather well on its own. They are a means of managing various activities separately and empowering line managers.

It’s far from being new. Each part of the business is becoming hyper-specialized. Start-ups do not work like that; they simply can’t. Conversely, breaking down silos in large organizations isn’t possible. The focus should be on how to disrupt a business through change management.

Grass-roots gunslingers aren’t any better at changing things

Intrapreneurship is nice, but encouraging grass-roots gunslingers isn’t always a good idea. They tend to work outside the organization, with no clearly defined governance in place. For instance, a proper eRetail strategy will require a lot of savoir-faire and multilateral negotiations. Indeed, setting up a brand-owned eStore is fine, but mastering selective distribution is a must. This cannot be done in isolation.

My conclusion about CDOs: “Could do better!”

Let us consider one more time the two main options for recruiting a CDO: internal or external.

In the former instance, newcomers tend to think they can be at the help of a transformation. But corporate history and culture are hard to overcome. Thus, in the end, change doesn’t happen. One has renewed both processes and governance, but this has not produced any no low-hanging fruits. Lip service, umpteen meetings, and PowerPoint slides, and even millions of dollars aren’t the recipe for successful initiatives.

As to the other way of recruiting CDOs, let us quote a tale-telling example. An international supermarket chain hired its CDO and bestowed very high ambitions and a  strong sponsorship upon him. He invested a lot of time and effort into this project. It did bring a few changes which we were implemented in no time. So much so that 90% of employees were up in arms against him. After two years, he burnt-out completely. His work did bring five years’ worth of change in just one year. But the disruption had been too sudden and ruthless.

In conclusion, let us quote a final example, which shows that a third option is possible. A marketer had just joined a new business. Her aim wasn’t to disrupt everything. She merely wanted to launch tangible initiatives and product developments in the healthcare industry. Rather than fighting against resistance to change, she tried to bring value add, while remaining down-to-earth. A succession of small projects made it possible for her department to make up 10% of the company’s turnover gradually. Based on such results, she was then asked to take over responsibilities within the group.

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