| 8 July, 2021 | 8 Min Read

Chief Digital Officers: Champions of digital change

A Chief Digital Officer, or CDO, is still a relatively new executive role within organizations. But is a Chief Digital Officer an essential role to fill for every organization? And what exactly are they expected to do, and why?

The title “Chief Digital Officer” first emerged around 2010, when smartphones and tablets were already giving us the means to communicate anytime, from anywhere. Suddenly, businesses realized they needed solid, well-thought-out strategies to ensure they could meet the expectations of increasingly tech-savvy customers.

Back in 2012, Gartner predicted that Chief Digital Officers would "prove to be the most exciting strategic role in the decade ahead." At the time, there were probably no more than about a dozen CDOs worldwide. But by 2017, a study by Strategy& (PWC) found that approximately 19% of top global companies had a CDO, 60% of whom were hired since 2015.

While the rapid growth of the Chief Digital Officer role shows no signs of slowing, the responsibilities associated with the position are continually evolving and expanding. That’s because new technological advances such as big data and analytics, machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics continue to reshape the way companies operate.

What is a Chief Digital Officer (CDO)?

Companies look to Chief Digital Officers to assume end-to-end responsibility for driving growth and setting their strategic direction. CDOs do this by transforming traditional analog businesses into agile and responsive digital ones.

Chief Digital Officers place particular focus on creating new value by making creative use of digital tools and technologies, platforms, and processes. This is particularly critical for companies that came of age in the industrial era, in which more traditional business models dominated

These organizations face the challenge of rethinking and reinventing their legacy business models to adapt to today’s digital economy. For such businesses, it’s essential to have a dedicated leadership role to ensure their successful digital transformation and, ultimately, their survival.

This would explain the dramatic rise in the number of Chief Digital Officers appointed over the last decade.

Grove HR - what is a chief digital officer

Chief Digital Officer - the new role in charge of digital transformation


Some might ask the question: Do companies really need to appoint a Chief Digital Officer to spearhead digital innovation and transformation within their organizations?

Could the responsibility not be shared by existing C-suite leaders – i.e., the Chief Information Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Technology Officer, or other functional heads?

To answer these questions, let’s take a closer look at the depth and breadth of responsibilities of today’s Chief Digital Officers.

What does a Chief Digital Officer do?

Chief Digital Officers’ primary role is to drive growth and set the strategic direction by transforming an organization’s traditional analog businesses into digital ones. Specifically, they focus on creating new value through the smart use of digital tools and platforms, technologies, services, and processes.

Grove HR - A CDO focuses on adding values to the business through the use of digital tools

A CDO focuses on adding values to the business through the use of digital tools


This transformation effort needs to span the entire enterprise and is typically a multi-year journey.

That’s a huge set of tasks to expect just one person to execute.

If an organization doesn’t appoint a dedicated person to fill the Chief Digital Officer role, it’s unlikely that they’ll accelerate their digital transformation journey at the pace that’s required in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace.  

Here’s a summary of the objectives and key performance indicators of a Chief Digital Officer:

  • Act as a cross-functional agent for change across the business.

  • Create and execute a digital strategy that allows the business to move away from traditional processes to digital ones. Digitising HR - in terms of the HR tools, software, and platforms the business leverages - is one of the most common and impactful initiatives CDOs spearhead as part of this journey.

  • Champion enterprise-wide use of digital technology and practices.

  • Ensure collaboration and knowledge sharing among all key internal and external stakeholders.

  • Identify and tap into new digital revenue streams.

  • Keep abreast of industry and market innovations to ensure that the digital strategy remains current and relevant.

  • Review and fine-tune projects as required to make sure that the organization is leveraging and investing in the correct enabling tools and digital-savvy people resources.

  • Develop metrics to measure the return on investment on digital efforts.

  • Build relationships and trust across the business to ensure that functional silos are broken down.

  • Create a digital culture and mindset among employees at all levels

  • Build a solid underpinning technology platform.

You may be wondering what the difference is between a Chief Digital Officer and a Chief Information Officer.

Chief Information Officers look after a company’s IT infrastructure and seek out ways to improve its operational efficiency. Chief Digital Officers are more focused on developing and implementing digital initiatives  that allow for innovation and large-scale business transformation.

What skills do Chief Digital Officers require?

The role of a Chief Digital Officer may vary depending on the company’s operating industry, geography, and size. However, here are some of the core skills all Chief Digital Officers need to succeed in driving a successful digital transformation:

5 essential skills of a CDO 

  1. 1
  2. 2
     An eye for innovation
  3. 3
     Understanding of emerging tech trends, products, and services
  4. 4
     Execution ability
  5. 5
     Pioneering and influential


Only businesses that remain laser-focused on their end-users' experience and customers will succeed in creating and sustaining digital innovation. The best Chief Digital Officers know that digital products and services are most effective when creating profound and lasting personal experiences.

An eye for innovation

Chief Digital Officers will look for creative ways to harness digital technology to introduce fresh ideas into their marketplace. To do this, they must show a clear understanding of what it means to re-invent an organization’s business model. This calls for both product innovation and process innovation.  

Understanding of emerging tech trends, products, and services

Successful Chief Digital Officers have a deep understanding of how technology currently works as well as its potential use in the business and consumer contexts. This means they should stay up to speed on the latest emerging digital trends and products and how the market is responding to them.

Execution ability

One of the most challenging parts of a Chief Digital Officer’s job is ensuring that their vision and strategy are executed timely and effectively. This calls for more than just deep technical knowledge and good project management skills. The best Chief Digital Officers know how to manage their stakeholders and can break down resistance to change.

Pioneering and influential

Chief Digital Officers require a diverse and robust set of skills. They must be able to get people to trust them, influence other’s thoughts and behaviours, and successfully pioneer new ideas and mindsets. By doing so, they will ensure that their digital efforts gain the speed and momentum they need to succeed.

Do I need a Chief Digital Officer?

Are you considering hiring a Chief Digital Officer? The best place to start is to take stock of both your digital risks and opportunities. Then, you should establish how well your existing leadership team is equipped to develop and deploy an effective digital business model. Here are some questions to help you:

  1. 1. What is the level of digital threat that your business currently faces? Do you have many new digital or online competitors? How many? How well do you compare with the current digital market leader in your industry?

  2. 2. If your existing business model is under threat or no longer fit-for-purpose, what would be the correct, alternative digital model? Which area should you focus on first: operational efficiency or the customer experience?

  3. 3. How would embracing the digital era benefit your business? For example, does it give you the means to tap into a new customer base or expand your existing revenue streams? Where could you bring the power of artificial intelligence or machine learning to bear to your benefit?
  4. 4. What capabilities will you need to build on to successfully plan and execute digital transformation? For example, do you need to outsource to third-party digital services or invest in analytics skills and technologies?
  5. 5. Is your current leadership and the executive team willing and able to accomplish this task, or would they require the appointment of a dedicated resource?

Final thoughts

If your business has set its sights on driving an enterprise-wide digital transformation effort, a Chief Digital Officer can help you achieve that vision.

With a competent Chief Digital Officer on board, you’ll ensure your business executes an effective digital strategy and stays up to date with the latest digital technology innovations.

Importantly, he or she will make sure you don’t fall behind your competitors and continue to deliver a high-quality, customer-centric experience.

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