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Forrester says “no”.  If you’re from the technology sector you can skip this blog post. A CDO is irrelevant to tech companies…like bringing sand to the beach. This rebuttal is for all of the other industries out there.

While I did not hold the title of “Chief Digital Officer” at ACNielsen, as VP of Global Marketing for our Internet Services, I effectively operated as one. This was in the middle 1990’s, right as the Internet was becoming a commercially viable medium. We enjoyed a disproportionate amount of success at a time when others in our industry were still contemplating what to make of this thing called the Internet. Here are some of my observations:

Most companies have achieved their success in a decidedly non-digital manner. The executives that have risen to the top have built strong competencies that have served the company well. It is not realistic to just decree “get digital” and expect everyone to morph their strategies and processes accordingly. There is a need to first craft a vision for how new technologies can take the company to the next level. Then there is a need to instantiate that vision into a set of strategies. Then, goals and bonuses need to be aligned to “put your money where your mouth is”.

I don’t think it is realistic to hire a CEO that is both excellent in a company’s core domain (be it retail or banking or whatever) AND also be their digital messiah. Instead, I would advocate the hiring of a digital expert to act as change agent within the organization. This person should be smart & collaborative. Humble, yet doesn’t take “no” for an answer. This person can craft the strategy (in concert with business unit & department heads). Then it is the responsibility for the CEO to step up and get organizational commitment to that change. Strategies need to be ratified. Bonuses need to be tied to successful completion of milestones and realization of key metrics. The so-called Chief Digital Officer then becomes an indispensable resource to the other execs in helping them achieve their goals.

So, in my opinion, old school companies CAN benefit from an empowered digital change agent so long as there is commitment to the agreed upon changes from his/her peers and the CEO. Commitment means it becomes part of the company’s plans and bonus structure.