The emergence of the Chief Digital Officer


The digital era is causing disruption at the board level with changes reflecting the new reality of how businesses are managed.  As many large companies undergo the equivalent of open-heart surgery while running, this is also causing the emergence of a new role: The Chief Digital Officer (CDO).

In South Africa, we’ve seen a number of companies, from banks to telecoms to property companies, recently appoint CDOs. This is a reflection of the urgent need to respond to profound changes taking place in their respective markets. Virtually every industry is undergoing transformation. As these massive changes take place, leadership is a core ingredient to navigating the digital landscape and to reinvent positions, roles and business models.

The CDO should be considered an amalgam of the Chief Technology and Chief Information Officer roles. The CDO is effectively in charge of assessing and affecting the digital health of an organisation. As such, the Chief Digital Officer is not just a ‘techie’ who keeps systems running, but a critical player in forming and executing on strategy that positively impacts business outcomes. They oversee the healthy functioning of critical organs of a business, and the ability of that business to innovate, right through to its employees and technology systems.

The CDO drives innovation as a part of forming digital strategies and the development of new products. As organisations undergo digitization, it is a significantly more profound exercise than a ‘digital transfusion’.  In many cases, it means evolving parts of a business in order to improve productivity, collaboration, communication and business processes across the organisation. Often, CDOs are driving strategic projects aimed at creating new customer experiences, transforming business models, and empowering workforce innovation. To do this, companies need a foundation that is outcome driven and enabled by technology.

This is where Cisco plays a major role. Cisco provides the foundation for digital transformation with a secure, intelligent, intent-based network at its core. Overseeing network systems, information services, software development, and digital communications, Cisco helps CDOs to touch on design, development, management and maintenance as they conduct ‘digital triage’ of their company’s strategic priorities.

In dealing with big data, analytics and market segmentation, CDOs must address four drivers of profitability: simplicity, security, scalability and agility. 1) Simplicity; a CDO must find ways in which to run an organisation as efficiently as possible, balancing resources against strategic priorities. 2) Security; a CDO must ensure that security systems are prepared and able to mitigate against an expanding threat landscape (i.e. mobile devices and Internet of Things connections across a set of multiple contact points). 3) Scalability refers to the pace with which an organisation can deploy innovation at scale. It involves the extent to which a business can build new business models (or at least react to newcomers disrupting theirs). This is one of the most critical aspects of a CDO’s job: getting big, fast and securely. 4) Agility involves the development of new ecosystems, responding to new entrants and anticipating behavior shifts among customers. In so doing, CDOs must challenge assumptions made in the past, the ways a company delivers value, operations, and even the culture of an organisation.

In the past, it took years to build, design and implement systems and products. Today, with the cloud, software and global teams and processes, deployment of new technologies and products can be completed within months. For CDOs, the proverbial aphorism carpe diem (“seize the day”) is being replaced by carpe discidium (“seize the disruption”).

Clayton Naidoo  is  Cisco’s General Manager for South Africa