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“In the digital enterprise, it is unreasonable to expect a single executive to be the king of all technology.”
Martha Heller, president, Heller Search Associates
Why digital strategy requires company-wide leadership
Image: Tony Luong
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Why digital strategy requires company-wide leadership

Kenny MacIver – June 2014

Having one executive responsible for digital strategy is a mistake, argues CIO headhunter Martha Heller. Every senior executive needs to be on the case.

As digital technologies become pervasive across almost all areas of business, there’s a question being asked by management boards around the world: “Who should be running our digital strategy?” In many cases, the name of the CIO or CTO tops the suggestions list, but in others (especially in sectors like retail and entertainment) chief digital officers (CDOs) or chief marketing officers (CMOs) are often prime candidates.

According to Martha Heller, president of CIO headhunter group Heller Search Associates, that debate is simply too narrow, and she suggests looking at other, more mature parts of the business for guidance.

“Think about the concept of finance. Everybody in the company works with different aspects of finance in some way or another. Within their departments and projects, people have revenue targets, they have budgets and expense management. Others deal with procurement and payroll and HR. In effect, finance is ubiquitous throughout the organization,” she says. “But you don’t have one leader who has everyone who has anything to do with finance reporting directly to them.”

CFOs operate at a higher level. They are responsible for setting guidelines around compliance, on financial reporting, on company-wide budgeting and other policy, says Heller.

Likewise, as technology becomes ubiquitous in an organization, it is unreasonable to expect a single executive to be positioned as the “king of all technology” because, as Heller observes, “technology is becoming just too broad.”
Defining the digital enterprise

The upshot is the division of digital labor. “The CIO is going to have to divide up the role, appointing people focused on innovation, on operations, on product, on R&D and so on. So when it comes to the question of who is going to take charge of a company’s digital strategy — of all the technologies, strategies and products that allow companies to engage digitally with their customers and partners more effectively in the future — I believe that is not going to be a single individual but a group of people.” That would be likely to include the CMO, CTO, CIO and CDO and other CXOs as the digital enterprise evolves, she says.

Heller draws evidence for changing digital roles from the field. “We’ve recently been hired by an online consumer business which is looking for an executive to run their digital strategy. They already have a CIO; that CIO is a back-office CIO and is doing a hugely valuable job but has no business being the chief digital officer. The chief digital officer, in this case, will have a marketing background in ecommerce and will be an expert in social media strategy and the emerging ways of reaching customers.”

“Every senior executive in a company needs to know that digital disruption is occurring and that everybody needs to be focused on it.”

She contrasts that with another executive search that is under way. “We are working with a CIO of a large retail organization who has recognised the need for a new focus on digital innovation in their company and has been anointed the company’s chief innovation officer.  He’s starting an innovation lab, he’s got a whole organization focused in innovation and he is delegating his IT operational responsibilities to other executives.”

As that example highlights, the advent of the digital enterprise means the profession of CIO is in a dynamic — and very exciting — phase, with different companies looking for a variety of new skillsets from the role. “It’ll be very interesting to see how it all shakes out but I do believe that having only one executive being responsible for digital strategy is a mistake. I think every senior executive in a company needs to know that digital disruption is occurring and that everybody needs to be focused on it.”

First published
June 2014
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About: Martha Heller
As president of Heller Search Associates, Martha Heller leads a group dedicated to placing transformational IT leaders with some of the world’s top companies. She is the author of ‘The CIO Paradox: Battling the contradictions of IT leadership.’

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