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CDO job description: What does a CDO do?

What is a chief digital officer and how does the role differ from the rest of the C-suite?

Chief digital officers (CDO) have a lot on their plates; not only are they responsible for the digital transformation of their organisation and future-proofing of its operations, but they also have to do so without getting in the way of the CIO and CTO

That could explain why the role isn't that common - some organisations don't 'officially' have a CDO, it's just part and parcel of the CIO and CTO roles. However, there is a growing trend of businesses leaning towards the CDO, with many realising that this area of IT needs specific focus that cannot be bundled into one of the existing roles. 

Of course, like all current digital trends, a newfound appreciation of the CDO role has been accelerated by the COVID pandemic. A recent Gartner Board of Directors survey found that 69% of boards have ramped up their digital business initiatives in response to the disruption caused by the pandemic. This includes the mass shift to remote working and the widespread adoption of digital services such as VPNs and video conferencing platforms. 

What does a CDO do?

The CDO is tasked with driving their organisation's digital transformation strategy and coordinating all of its efforts to do so. This means following a company vision - one they themselves may not have created - to bring their business into the future and make sure that different departments, from IT to the finance teams, feed into its digital transformation targets. 

The key responsibilities include mapping out the major priorities for digital transformation and serving as the point of contact for innovation. But the role also intersects with other areas, with the CDO expected to stay on top of whether an organisation has the digital skills at hand to realise its strategy, as well as evaluate the return on investment (ROI)

Above all, the CDO must ensure the appropriate processes, procedures and technologies are used to their full potential so 'digital' becomes ingrained into the business - rather than something consigned to the back of the mind.

While encompassing a broad brief, a CDO's duties also carry a tremendous amount of responsibility given digital transformation is becoming increasingly key to nearly all businesses' future. It's the norm for CDOs to report straight to a firm's CEO, with far more discretion to act unilaterally than other key figures across a business may have perhaps.

One downside of the role is that CDOs are often confused with chief data officers – another job position that has become increasingly popular in the last few years, as a growing number of organisations discover the significance of data. In fact, when it comes to companies which don’t employ a chief data officer, CDOs can even expect to be burdened with the additional responsibility of the other in order to succeed in their job. Gartner predicts that, by 2023, this will apply to one in two (50%) of CDOs without a chief data officer peer.

According to Mike Rollings, distinguished research vice president at Gartner, both roles are crucial “in accelerating digital business and building a data-driven organisation”. 

“Some organisations may not have the luxury of having both roles, but the absence of executive focus on either of these critical endeavors can undermine the other,” he said.

While ​​chief digital officers are often regarded as impermanent roles, often tied in with the length of the process of digital transformation that they are overseeing – it’s not a coincidence that the position has been described as “transformer in chief”.

However, taking on the added role of chief data officer “can solidify the longevity of the role in the organisation”, states Gartner. This is due to the increased demand for data and analytics skills, coupled with the urgency of deploying digital transformation since the start of the pandemic.

According to Rollings, “the success of these endeavors is intertwined”.

“A digital business cannot exist without data and analytics,” he added.

What qualifications does a CDO need?

A CDO doesn't necessarily need a set roster of qualifications to carry out the role. The candidate could come from a varied background and of course, they may not only hold the role of CDO but also partake in activities linked to the company's digital strategy as part of their daily duties.

As digital transformation in becoming more commonplace, if an employee is carrying out some CDO duties as part of their wider role, there is a possibility that they may be promoted to CDO in future, as demands calls for it.

But does the job title really matter? If an employee remains in an alternative role, but still focuses on delivering value for the business through a time of change, does the label need to be so official?

Forrester Research's vice president and principal analyst Nigel Fenwick doesn't think so, as he conveyed in a blog post back in 2015, writing: "Let's not get too hung up on titles what really matters is the ability to combine a deep understanding of the customer with an understanding of how digital technology will drive new sources of customer value."

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According to a report by PwC that looked into the qualities a CDO should possess in order to be successful in their role, it highlighted five personality traits that a CDO should have. They are being a progressive thinker, a creative disrupter, a customer advocate, an innovative technologist and a universalist.

Which one an organisation employs is very much dependent on the type of business and what they're trying to achieve, according to PwC.

"European companies are leading the field when it comes to hiring CDOs, with 13% having appointed someone for the role. However, as digital transformation continues to move up business agendas, it's time for those who haven't yet invested to prioritise filling the CDO position, as competition for the best talent will only increase," said Ashley Unwin, PwC's UK and EMEA consulting leader.

"Many organisations struggle to know where to start in recruiting for this newly created role. These five archetypes provide an overview of the different roles and responsibilities a CDO could hold in order to help companies work out the best fit for their specific needs and drive their organisation towards a digital future."

How much do CDOs earn?

Given how new the role itself is and the fact that many CDOs wear hats with different names, it's hard to say for sure what the earning potential is. Salary Expert reckons that average CDO salary in London is £143,446, around 24% higher than the average CDO salary in UK. An entry-level CDO with 1-3 years of experience can expect to earn around £97,000, according to the website, while a senior level CDO with 8+ years of experience will earn an average salary of £182,000. 

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