Will CDO Steal CIO's Leadership Role?

Nicholas Carr was wrong; IT does matter. But the tech that matters most now is data, leading to a possible leadership coup by chief data officers and chief digital officers.

Michael Fitzgerald, Contributor

October 2, 2013

3 Min Read

Asking whether CIOs have a future isn't a new question. Nicholas Carr in 2003 famously challenged whether we needed IT at all. He compared IT to the spread of electric power: at some point, it becomes a commodity that gives no competitive advantage. The CIO is thus in the same lights-out position as those early CEOs (chief electricity officers).

Ten years later there are still plenty of CIOs, and global IT spending is supposed to rise to $3.7 trillion this year. Carr was wrong, then; CIOs are safe.

Not really.

Technology is everywhere, and the speed of change overwhelms most of us. Many companies have responded by moving to BYOD and cloud computing. That's not IT as a specialized, important function that gives businesses a better way of doing things. That's people being their own CIOs. Want more proof? Some think that this year, CMOs will spend more on tech than CIOs.

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Meanwhile, companies are hiring CDOs -- chief digital officers -- people who often do not come from a traditional IT background. There is also another kind of CDO, the chief data officer. DHR, a big recruiter, just released a white paper, "The Emergence of the Chief Data Officer," arguing that the chief data officer is to today what the CIO was in the 1980s: a job on the rise. In fact, the seventh annual CDO conference took place earlier this year at (where else?) MIT. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve hired a chief digital officer, too.

Here's where Carr might have been wrong about IT. Both types of CDOs -- chief digital officers and chief data officers -- exist because new technologies do matter, at least right now. I have a wonkier life where I write about management trends for MIT Sloan Management Review, and some of the research I've covered finds a strong correlation between successfully adopting new technologies and financial performance at companies.

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But technologies that let consumers just flip the switch don't require CIOs. As DHR's Adam Charlson argued, "most CIOs and CTOs do not possess the knowledge and experience to guide a big data program, and most do not have the bandwidth to cultivate and champion a data-driven culture."

Data is information. These early chief data officers could be like chief information security officers, people who typically report up to a CIO. But nearly 80% of the companies surveyed by Data Blueprint, a consulting firm, said a chief data officer should report to the business side, not IT. Data Blueprint's Peter Aiken argued that the pace of technological change means CIOs must center on integrating old and new technologies, an increasingly complex job.

Aiken wrote, "Organizations increasingly recognize … that the strategy and management of data needs to be de-coupled from technology. Forward-thinking, leading-edge organizations are aware of this and have instituted the CDO role."

Sounds like a death knell for the C-level CIO.

Companies still need specialists for IT projects, just like companies still hire electricians or install generators. But nobody looks to the electrician to drive strategy. Both types of CDOs represent jobs specifically created to translate the fruits of technology into a language that business people understand.

CIOs who can help their companies understand the impact of waves of new technologies will still matter. CIOs who cannot will find themselves consigned to be the equivalent of digital facilities managers.

About the Author(s)

Michael Fitzgerald


Michael Fitzgerald writes about the power of ideas and the people who bring them to bear on business, technology and culture.

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