Will the chief digital officer still exist by 2020?

In the last five years or so, the position of chief digital officer (CDO) has been introduced to many consumer-facing businesses.

From Bertrand Bodson at Argos and Thomas Nielsen at Tesco who both hold CDO positions, to the similar digital positions, under the guise of 'executive director of multichannel', held by Laura Wade-Gery at M&S, and previously Andy Harding at House of Fraser. These talented execs have demonstrated that the chief digital officer's remit is much more than a C-level position relieving the CIO of all things smartphone and tablets.

The position involves working alongside IT to help the entire business understand the importance of owning technology and how digital impacts the whole of the retail journey – from sourcing and supply chain to marketing and eCommerce, and everything else in between. The CDO's job is to break down the silos between the different departments and ensure they, and the retailer's board, understand technology is no longer the sole responsibility of IT.

Kantar Retail's VP of eCommerce and digital insights, Malcolm Pinkerton, explains that eCommerce never used to have a place on the board and was very separate to marketing or IT, but with a CDO at board level, online suddenly had a seat at the table.

Pinkerton says retailers will begin to see progress after appointing a CDO when eCommerce is no longer an isolated department, but has links with marketing, supply chain and IT. "It's not about an eCommerce director or digital officer, a CDO is about the customer experience – it's a more customer-centric approach."

He warns: "If you go down the role of channel and touchpoint and create roles around silos, you're not going to win. A role that looks at all of the business makes more sense."

A job with an expiration date?

Neil Stewart, CEO of Salmon, describes the CDO role as the person who "defines the company's digital strategy while reviewing and optimising the organisational structure for a digitally-led world".

He says: "We believe it is a cruel irony that CDOs should be putting themselves in a position that their role will be redundant if they are successful, in that their job should be to digitise the company strategy rather than just developing a digital strategy. The CDOs that excel at this should then soon have new, more familiar titles such as COO or CEO. Just like CEOs and COOs need to have financial savviness, both need to be digitally savvy as a given, so we expect more digitally-competent company executives than elaborate titles going forward."

Blackwell's digital director, Kieron Smith, is one retail executive who believes his days are numbered. He told Essential Retail back in 2015: "A business should have a digital director for a period of time but then you become a digital business. It's a catalyst to move businesses from one point to another, and take both the organisation and customers with them."

But Lucy Larkin, managing director of Accenture's retail practice, is not so sure. "The concept that a retailer's digital transition will be done by 2020 is a nice idea, but the reality is most businesses are still at the beginning of their digital transformation and still have a very long way to go."

She adds: "And when is digital 'done'? Because there will always be the next wave of technology."

Changing job titles not functions

In the last year or so another C-level position has cropped up – the chief customer officer. House of Fraser was the first to debut this role when promoting Andy Harding two years ago, proving it was dedicated to thinking about customer first, not channels or technology.

Larkin believes this is a sign of how the job title of CDO may change, but the function will remain. "That person might become head of strategy, because digital transition will still have to be led by somebody determining the digital roadmap."

Pinkerton agrees the job role is evolving. He says the CDO job will still exist in the coming years, just under the guise of a different title, similarly to the trend of creating chief customer officer positions.

"We've seen lots of heads of social, heads of this, heads of that. But retailers need to figure out what these roles are and future proof them," says Pinkerton.

"Ten years down the line, the role of chief drone officer, or chief virtual reality officer might exist," he muses. "But all of that still comes down to the experience that the shopper has with the retailer. It might be more of a chief experience officer where it all becomes more about selling experience and lifestyle."