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May we introduce the Chief Digital Officer – the new role in top management

What role will the Chief Information Officer (CIO) play in the future? How will they interact with the Chief Digital Officer (CDO)? A lot is happening in top management right now. New roles and responsibilities revolving around IT are vying for a spot in the leadership ranks. This diversification is entirely justified. After all, many managers are feeling the pressure caused by the digital transformation. A high-profile example is the automotive industry, which is hard at work to advance the transformation towards software-defined cars. This will only work if car makers succeed in reducing the clutter of IT in their vehicles and rethink the processes involved in software development and maintenance. Similar developments can be seen in every industry.

Some management board members do not credit the conventional CIO with having the necessary skills or creativity to pull this off, which is why the board appoints a CDO. He or she is expected to spearhead digital initiatives and thereby play a crucial role in shaping the future of the company. Meanwhile, the CIO continues to ensure that all IT systems run as smoothly as possible. That’s the idea, at least.

However, debating who now plays the more important role in the digital transformation is not conducive to achieving the goal. Instead, companies need the CIO and CDO to work closely together. After all, IT can only unleash its full potential if those responsible do not think in terms of “new” versus “old”. A marketing campaign based on real-time data initiated by a specialist department and the CDO may be captivating, but without customer data supplied by the CRM system – the CIO’s domain – it is not likely to achieve the desired sales success.

Organisational structures that fail to take these interdependencies into account will struggle. Severing the link between individual IT disciplines and teams is not the right way to go. An IT infrastructure that is fit for the future requires both – innovative methods and stable processes – under the same roof.

The ambidexterity approach provides a convincing template for this. A look at the meaning behind this unwieldy term reveals the detail behind the concept. The word “ambidextrous” is derived from the Latin roots ambi-, meaning “both”, and dexter, meaning “right”. When applied to IT, it means there is one – really only one – IT department. This means having the right roles in the right places, in other words, CIO and CDO, with the emphasis on “and”. As a rule, the former is responsible for the overall IT strategy, technical infrastructure and applications and therefore has access to innumerable sources of data. Data is the raw material the CDO and their team use to build the future: it provides the basis for more streamlined processes and improved services.

In other words, the one role cannot exist without the other.

The danger is that differences in terms of culture and self-image might cause friction within this team of two. This is something that all stakeholders need to prevent. On a human level, it is absolutely necessary to have understanding and respect for each other’s work. A joint agreement on objectives and performance criteria help to align expectations and ideas on both sides. Even so, the management board should also have realistic expectations of its CDO, who cannot remedy what a company has neglected to do for years in terms of transformation over a short period of time. Digital miracles do not happen overnight.

Many companies would benefit from appointing a CDO to initiate change, define new priorities and establish the right mindset. Nothing is more stifling than remaining stuck in entrenched ways of working. However, in no way does this imply that the role of the CIO is becoming irrelevant – on the contrary.


*Prof. Dr Volker Gruhn is the founder and Supervisory Board Chairman of adesso as well as professor of software engineering at the University of Duisburg-Essen.


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