by Roman Friedrich, Pierre Péladeau, and Kai Mueller
More than a quarter of the world’s population owns a smartphone. In 2014, global mobile data traffic reached 2.5 billion gigabytes per month, a figure that is 30 times as large as all the traffic on the Internet for the full year 2000. No wonder global companies are moving rapidly to reshape their businesses to meet this new level of connectivity. One way they are doing so is by appointing a new kind of executive, the chief digital officer (CDO). The CDO’s mandate: to equip companies for the digital future. This executive has the dual task of developing an all-inclusive digital experience for customers and the internal capabilities needed to support that experience — while simultaneously managing the considerable investment required. The emergence of the new role to lead the organization’s digital efforts may in part be a reaction to the chronically weak relationships between CIOs and CMOs, which we’ve observed over the last few years.
The number of companies that have hired CDOs remains small — just 6 percent globally, according to the results of the inaugural Strategy& study of digital leadership at 1,500 of the world’s largest companies. But the number is growing rapidly. Of the 86 CDOs we found, 31 were appointed in 2015. The sectors where the highest proportion of companies have CDOs are travel and tourism, with 31 percent; entertainment, media, and communications companies, with 13 percent; and food and beverage companies, with 11 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, only 1 percent of mining and metals companies had a CDO; just 2 percent of those in the automotive, machinery, and engineering sectors did; and only 3 percent in technology and electronics did. One is also more likely to see CDOs in European companies than in their U.S. or Asian counterparts, and CDOs are more likely to appear in large companies than small ones. We suspect that in many cases where a CDO has not been appointed, it is because the related responsibilities are already distributed among other top management roles and are entrenched in all aspects of the company’s culture.
In the past, traditional CIOs and CTOs were focused primarily on their companies’ IT, managing employee desktops and enterprise-wide ERP and CRM systems. The CDO role, although it varies from one company to another, is far more comprehensive. Besides customer experience, the development of digital features in new products and services, and the relevant operational changes, the CDO may oversee changes in technical infrastructure and innovations in data collection and analysis. The CDO must also be an agent of cultural change, championing the digital transformation throughout the company and linking it to the development of the distinctive capabilities that form the basis of a company’s strategy.
Here are glimpses of chief digital officers (or people in similar roles) at four major companies, and the ways in which they meet the challenge of digital transformation.
Jessica Federer is head of digital development at Bayer. “The data piece is actually the easiest,” she notes. “Data is data. It’s the people piece that’s the challenge. So we focus first on the people in the organization, and how we connect across synergies, across silos, over platforms and data.”
Soon after she was appointed, Federer created a digital council consisting of the CIOs and CMOs of the relevant divisions at Bayer. Their task was to look at potential synergies. She also fostered a huge network of people involved in some aspect of digital transformation, to which she gave the acronym NERD (Network for Enterprise Readiness and Digital). “They bring together digital marketing with digital product supply with digital R&D,” says Federer. “We used to do this in silos, but now we do it by sharing information.”
At Renault, CDO Patrick Hoffstetter is creating a centralized digital transformation organization, which he calls the Digital Factory. This is not a literal factory, but a metaphorical center for people throughout the company who already work on digital projects and another group working at about 65 outside suppliers. The factory is the nexus of communications about the digital strategy, and the place where resources and experts come to design the transition to what Hoffstetter calls “the connected employee.” The changes put into place at the Digital Factory will affect how people work, what they expect from the company, and what tools they are given.
Balancing the timetable for this complex shift is a key part of the CDO’s role. “One reason most operations in digital strategy and transformation are focused on sales and marketing is that these functions have a direct, quite short-term impact on the business,” says Hoffstetter. “Whereas when it comes to the evolution of internal processes, internal social networks, acceleration of collaborative tools, and internal training, it’s much harder to show any payback, and it takes a lot longer.”
Corinne Avelines, CDO of the decorative paints division of the Dutch chemical company AkzoNobel, says broad support is critical: “Commitment at the top management level to innovation and digitization has made my job considerably easier,” she says. “Senior support is key to ensuring commitment to digital at the company, especially one of this size.”
At the same time, she says, overall strategy must always drive decisions about how and what to digitize. “Gaining a competitive advantage in a fast-digitizing age is a challenge, so CDOs must understand their company’s current position and future strategy — what will make an impact on providing value to the customer — and focus on that. Worry about the other things later.”
Visa CDO Chris Curtin says that he has learned to participate actively in the creation of the overall business strategy — and lead the process when necessary. “I not only think that the best CDOs are reflective of the business,” he says, “I think that in many respects they are the business.” To that end, he believes that CDOs should “forget about digital. Forget about new media. The business objective has to permeate the thinking and the strategies and the go-to-market approach of the CDO and his and her team. Never make the means the end. A million followers on Twitter is just a means. The end is the business goal.”
The CDOs interviewed for this study all emphasized the importance of working closely with every function of the business. Being part of top management gives them a critical strategic perspective, but they must also be given the power and support they need from functional groups. Otherwise, they may find themselves with a seat at the table but without the strategic and operational input that the digital transformation needs.
Ultimately, the goal of every CDO is to ingrain the digital agenda so deeply and efficiently that it will become a way of life for everyone and every function in the organization, and a priority for every member of its C-suite. Sooner or later, companies may get to a point where a transformation isn’t necessary, because it has already happened. Digital technology will be so well integrated that it won’t be a separate issue anymore. It will simply be part of the way people work, and the CDO will move to some new type of challenge.
- Roman Friedrich is a leading practitioner with Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business, and a partner with PwC Germany. He is based in Düsseldorf and Stockholm.
- Pierre Péladeau is a thought leader on digital strategy with Strategy& and a partner with PwC France, based in Paris.
- Kai Mueller is a specialist with Strategy& and a senior research and knowledge manager with PwC Germany, based in Berlin.