The disappearing CDO: Could the CIO be next?


A few years ago, every company was hiring a Chief Digital Officer. More recently, the role has been eliminated or merged. Has the CDO role outlived its usefulness? 

Image: iStockphoto/metamorworks

In the mid-2010s, news organizations and consultancies were heralding the arrival and critical importance of the Chief Digital Officer role. Consultancy McKinsey called it the “transformer in chief,” as even mainstream media outlets heralded the role as vital and enduring.

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More recently, rather than flowing press releases announcing newly minted CDOs, the role has been termed the “Chief Disappearing Officer” as companies quietly combine or remove the role.

Is the disappearance of the CDO a good thing?

One theory regarding the growing scarcity of the CDO is that it’s by design. The CDO role was often billed as a transformational one, which would help businesses understand and thrive in the digital era. Transformation by its very nature implies an event with a start and end, and many have suggested that truly transformational CDOs were successful when they made their own jobs obsolete.

There is some merit to this argument since the CDO role was often billed as a solution to the chasm between technology, led by the CIO, and other business roles. CIOs were deemed too focused on technology, an accusation that rang true based on the number of voices clamoring for alignment between IT and business units. CDOs were designed to interface these disparate parts of the organization and help business leaders make sense of technology while prodding IT along first as an enabling capability and later as a partner.

The global pandemic seemed to have accelerated this merger of technology, business and transformation. We were all forced to endure months of transformation and rapidly adapt technology to business needs to keep our teams, organizations and companies afloat.

In this positive reading of the case of the disappearing CDO, these individuals essentially accomplished their missions, perhaps even accelerating the end game with the pandemic forcing transformation upon even the most calcified organizations.

Or is losing the CDO a good thing?

The less-charitable view of the demise of the CDO role in many organizations is that it was often created in response to a market trend but was a role without a well-defined remit and without any authority to execute. There are certainly cases of organizations that hired a talented individual, gave them a title and then actively blocked every effort they made to transform their organizations.

In other cases, CDOs became enraptured by the cool technology and shiny objects. Like trendy fashionistas, these people grew tiresome when their solution to every problem was an expensive and often untried tech investment that was quickly out of fashion before demonstrating any measurable results.

An evolution rather than a revolution

CIOs and CTOs have also become more business savvy in most organizations, while their peers outside IT have become more technically adept. Long gone are the days when executives could laugh about not reading their emails or not being able to join a video call. Technology-led transformation has become part of everyone’s job description, rather than a special assignment for a unique C-level role.

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This evolution is a natural result of durable business trends. We’ll likely see the latest crop of new C-level roles, ranging from Chief Sustainability Officers to Chief Diversity Officers, gradually fade as these considerations transition from unique and new to a core component of business as usual.

Could the CIO be next?

If technology is increasingly embedded into business as usual, could the Chief Information Officer be the next role to gradually fade into the history books? Trends like cloud computing and hybrid networks have made a keeper of the technology kingdom-style CIO increasingly less relevant, at least as a C-level position.

However, the most influential CIOs generally combine an ability to identify, understand and apply emerging technology trends with an ability to manage what’s often an extensive investment portfolio in the guise of tech infrastructure and ongoing projects. These two areas must be understood and applied in the context of how they benefit the broader business, a gap that sparked the need for a CDO in many organizations.

If you’re not actively engaging in these spaces and most of your day is consumed with worrying about operational issues, it may be worth reassessing your priorities.



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