Defining the CDO C-Suite Role | Hannington Tame
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Notes For The CDO

What would you do in a room full of some of the country’s top CDOs?

Well as we found out on Tuesday, you just need to put them together and watch the ideas fly.

On 20 th January Hannington Tame’s James Minter got together with Dr Mark Baker, author of ‘The CDO’s Handbook’, and some of their favourite people to chew the fat around defining the CDO role, barriers to the CDO and what could be broadly described as culture; both of the CDO and their affect on transforming their company’s culture.


Jaya Deshmukh from PwC’s Digital Transformation team

Jora Gill CDO at The Economist

Christian Purser CDO at M & C Saatchi

Jim Stevenson CDO at Bupa Global

The Common Ground

There was much in the discussion that has already been covered by previous articles on our blog. It was agreed that digital is in many ways an indicator of the general adaptability of a company’s management; that without board level involvement it is pointless; that it is not a silo and needed to cut through all the verticals in an organization; that digital is ultimately not a shiny panacea waiting in the corner to be unveiled and switched on.


One of the most surprising themes of the conversation (and something that reinforced our message that the future of digital is human) was the strength of feeling around how important culture is to the role. Promoting a culture of customer-centric thinking; perceiving product and processes from the customer’s viewpoint; gaining consistency of brand across channels and achieving this through the tools of agile and lean methodologies were seen as defining features of whether a company was or was not digital.

Fitting In With The C-Suite

Breaking some slightly new ground for us were the discussions around the very different cultures of the CIO and the CMO – the gap filled by a CDO. It was generally accepted that the CDO probably would be subsumed into the CMO role at some stage in the future. There was some discussion around whether there should be a Chief Data Officer but this was batted away by the point that most commercial management issues are not really around data but around insight and the application of that insight.

More interesting was the observation that a traditional CIO or CTO is very much a cost centre: their whole culture and success is tied up in saving money. On the other hand a CDO (or digital CMO) is a profit centre motivated to drive revenue (although not necessarily in such a direct way as a Sales Manager). To drill down even further, the CIO’s role is to achieve a state of stability and reliability whilst the CDO should be shaking the tree, looking for the cracks and encouraging creative disruption. However there was some backtracking on this when it was agreed that an important part of the CDO’s role is to ensure that commercial exigencies are translated into the efficient delivery of IT projects.

Quicker Than Ever

Speed, another familiar topic, was highlighted by some interesting stories and examples. Old-style bureaucracies were gently mocked whilst skunk works, hackathons and digital labs were praised and someone pointed out that changes that once took a minimum of 3 months to implement at the Guardian are now implemented and tested on a 3.5 minute cycle.

There was also much talk around digital Darwinism – clearly only the best adapters would survive. There was a great repost to the cry that strategy was a dead art and that testing was the only way ahead. In fact if you accept that the world is going to constantly change then your strategy should be one that fits this world and plans for change. We liked the comment that “the world was in a permanent state of Beta”.

Another interesting viewpoint was that Digital Transformation did have a definitive end and that it was the role of the CDO to create the conditions for change but not to claim them for his or her own glory. There was some scepticism about whether this was possible or indeed beneficial to a CDO’s career unless their CEO had a deep understanding of how much this silent agent of change was achieving. But it was an important point that the culture of the CDO should encourage the organization to be better for the customer not just its employees’ career prospects.

Chief Future Relevance Officer

There was a very amusing line of conversation around the scope and purpose of the CDO that kept leading back to duties you might otherwise assign to a CEO or possibly a COO. I think this led to my favourite “take away” of the evening: the CDO could be better described as the CFRO or Chief Future Relevance Officer. I think this describes the role so well and in its very title suggests that if you don’t pay attention you will become irrelevant: a judgement made not by a bureaucratic corporate journeyman but by the market itself.

All-in-all a very entertaining, provocative and informative night’s discussion. I think one area we skirted was the effect a CDO should have on the internal comms and processes of company and maybe this should be the subject of our next meeting. Do get in touch if you would like to be a member of the next panel.

James Minter

James Minter is a partner at Hannington Tame, the digital CEO and C-Suite headhunting specialist.


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