The language gap Chief Digital Officers must bridge

If your business recruited a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) in the past 18 months, that person could still be experiencing a language gap in the boardroom.

The challenges of a CDO are many, but one suspects among the first they face is the fact that they speak ‘digital’ and most other executives don’t.

Only five percent of executive directors at leading UK-listed retailers have any sort of online background (DHR International, April 2016). At a global level, a talk published at the World Retail Congress in Dubai claimed 90% of current retail boards will not be fit for purpose by 2021.

The problem isn’t limited to retail either. A recent Accenture report found that only six per cent of board executives at the world’s largest banks have any kind of professional technology experience. Only 3% of CEOs have that same professional technology experience.

In a world where consumer banking is driven by technology, 40% of global banks have zero technology experience on their board.

This means decisions about the direction of companies, their strategies and which priorities are resourced at the expense of others, often get made without any digital influence or without a digital voice in the room.

Many organizations recognize the problem and are hiring CDOs to lead a necessary digital transformation across the business. The increasing emergence of the new board-level role demonstrates a self-awareness in these organizations that they lack the digital sophistication required to compete.

A CDO however can’t just be a digital thinker. They also need to be supremely skilled communicators. Their responsibility starts with successfully articulating their vision - their job is hard enough without having to do it against a tide of resistance and obstruction.

If this communications job is neglected or unsuccessful, a CDO stands to be frustrated in their efforts and fought on every change they try to implement.

You might argue that the one group of people that doesn’t need convincing when it comes to the details of a CDO’s revolution is the directors on the board that sanctioned the hiring of that CDO.

But in the boardroom the likely problem won’t be one of goodwill so much as comprehension. An organization might well stand behind the general idea of somebody sweeping through the business with a digital magic wand.

But the details will be what board directors might find hard. The resources that need deploying and the structural or cultural change likely to be required will bring challenges. Moreover, the important decisions as to which technologies a company needs to put its faith in for it to have a chance of a future - some of these discussions may be difficult for a board director without “technology experience”, but they’re crucial.

CDOs by nature of the role are visionaries who move with great agility and they have to infuse that same dynamism throughout entire organizations. Part of that comes from leveraging their remit and personal excellence in their field, and the rest comes from executive sponsorship.

The route to digital transformation is relentless and CDOs can only carry organizations with support from the top and inspiring personal leadership.

The mission of a CDO is an urgent one and they have to bridge this language gap quickly to ensure success for their organizations. Businesses are not lining up for a standing start in their digital transformations, the best have found their dynamic CDO and embarked on their journey.

As part of our ongoing Change Agents campaign, I visited Las Vegas last week to have dinner with a number of executives who successfully run their businesses by seeing everything through a digital, customer-experience lens. Next month I’ll fly to Chicago to repeat the exercise and we’ll be meeting more CDOs and Change Agents in New York soon.

I’ll report the conversations had on our Change Agents website (itself a work in progress with wholesale change coming soon) where we plan to feature stories of those driving difficult but necessary digital change across legacy businesses. Visit the website regularly to hear more and let me know if you have an experience or some success for us to share.