Every Company Needs A Chief Digital Officer

Editor’s note: Neha Sampat is CEO of raw engineering and an expert on the enterprise market, with 15 years in product marketing for enterprise software, cloud computing and online experiences for companies like Sun Microsystems and VMware.

In an increasingly digital world, where everything from marketing to R&D and customer service is becoming digital, the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) is more important than ever in helping drive company growth and a better connection with customers.

Recently Gartner released its top 10 strategic technology trends for 2015 citing the impact of the digital business shift as a driving force behind these trends. With that, the number of CDO jobs has doubled since 2013 and continues to grow.

The rise of the CDO comes at a time of much industry debate regarding the divide between business and IT. Amid the disconnect between CMOs and CIOs, the CDO finally promises some relief and reconciliation: CDOs understand the digital opportunities – as well as the threats of cutting corners in the interest of time-to-market – and have a solid grasp on both the technology choices and corresponding trade-offs before them.

Where the CMO may be preoccupied revamping the company’s brand by pursuing a viral mobile app, IT may still be struggling with bring-your-own-device (BYOD). The CDO, meanwhile, can think holistically about how a company’s strategy is executed across all digital channels – such as mobile, the Internet of Things (IoT) and an increasingly important SaaS-based web – and can provide insight and recommendations on how to reconcile the digital experience for key target audiences.

Think of the last time you were at a conference or big event, for example…wouldn’t it be refreshing if there was a consistent, continuous experience as an attendee? Yet surprisingly, it is still all too common to have a registration experience that seems completely disconnected from the on-site experience.

If there is a mobile app, it typically doesn’t sync up with any pre-event outreach (nor the post-event follow-up) and is barely relevant to actual on-site behavior and preferences. Despite, or perhaps because of all the different avenues through which event organizers collect and disseminate information, personalization ends up falling short, resulting in a lack of engagement.

It takes vision, discipline and a thorough understanding of a broad set of technologies to effect digital change.

The tide is beginning to turn, however. To stick with our example, more and more event teams are replacing cookie-cutter apps and siloed systems, fundamentally rethinking the way an attendee experiences a conference. Done right, a seamless digital experience extends beyond the conference for a continued dialog with attendees on topics relevant to them, long after they have returned to their daily lives. Great CDOs are masters of facilitating this in a non-intrusive manner.

It takes vision, discipline and a thorough understanding of a broad set of technologies to effect digital change. In my experience, technology is rarely the main issue. Rather, it’s about finding the organizational that allows a business to be successful defining and implementing its digital strategy. In most companies, such a will doesn’t come without formal ownership.

A true CDO owns and drives digital strategy across the entire organization and helps it extract value for the business. Anecdotally, this is where startups and smaller companies have an edge, because they typically have fewer traditional (and fewer intuitive) boundaries.

From a technology perspective, CDOs spend a lot of time dealing with the continued impact of the mobile revolution. However, they also realize that companies need to start thinking about every aspect of their business and its digital impact, from mobile application development to managing distribution channels for content via new digital technologies.

How do you engage potential customers and provide a consistent experience across a mind-boggling number of devices, each with their own unique capabilities and restrictions? How do you effectively manage content across channels, especially when they are supported by widely varying technology stacks? And with IoT expected to gain traction over the next 12 months, CDOs have to formulate a plan to embrace the next wave of digital innovation.

Here, too, many startups have the advantage of being born digital and having embraced the latest digital technology to build its internal IT systems. Many startups we work with run entirely on cloud services such as Google Docs, Zoho and Expensify and inherently treat mobile and web channels as equally important. Thinking digital is in their DNA, which leads to an intuitive understanding of digital technology across every member of the team.

LinkedIn already lists some 1,300 CDOs today, but many more digital operating executives lurk right beneath the SEO surface, especially in larger corporations, with titles such as “Chief Media Officer”, “Head of Digital Strategy”, “VP Digital Marketing” or simply “VP Digital”. Look for many of these to be updating and “upgrading” their profiles over the next year.

Just as the CDO role is going mainstream, peer-led events such as the Chief Digital Officer Global Forum are testaments to a growing community of like-minded professionals. They’re also a great place to mingle with, exchange best practices and, yes, scout for CDO talent.