Just a few years ago the role of chief digital officer didn’t exist. But a dearth of experienced talent combined with the growing number of businesses seeking to leverage digital has put a premium on the role.
A new survey of 2,000 executives by PwC, the professional services firm, found that chiefs responsible for digital are “instrumental” in setting high-level business strategy.
“Everyone talks about digital, but few understand the specific leadership behaviours that drive performance,” said Chris Curran, PwC advisory principal and chief technologist.
He added that digital is a critical mind-set, “especially as digital technologies become more pervasive”.
A study by Capgemini, the consultancy firm, found that executives are desperate to hire outside talent to manage new digital initiatives.
Ted Malloch, of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, and chief executive of consultancy The Roosevelt Group, said: “There is a war for [digital] talent.”
Dr Jim Hamill, head of the Digital Leadership initiative at Strathclyde Business School, said: “A new breed of senior executive is required to help large organizations progress easily and successfully through digital transformation.”
Driving up the demand for digital leaders are the tech transformations increasingly launched by companies.
Phil Dunmore, head of consulting for the UK at Cognizant, said: “Many companies are heavily focused on planning and implementing their digital transformation.” He added that today, “strategy without technology is no strategy at all”.
Consumer industry companies in sectors like retail were the first to appoint digital chiefs. Now, they are employed across virtually all industries, from finance and real estate to insurance and media.
But finding the right people for digital roles is challenging, as they need a diverse set of skills that often overlap with those of the chief marketing officer or chief operating officer.
Nicolas Glady, director of the Center for Digital Business at ESSEC Business School, highlighted the difficulty in finding talent who can master digital tools and adhere to commercial outcomes, adding: “Digital is a means, not an end.”
Mike Wade, director of the Center for Digital Business Transformation at IMD, the Swiss business school, said the biggest challenges in driving digital strategy are organizational.
“Leaders who don’t understand the threats or shy away from the technologies understandably have trouble transforming their organizations,” he added.
David Kiron, executive editor of the MIT Sloan Management Review and a former senior researcher at Harvard Business School, said: “You need talented leaders and managers, as well as a digital culture that supports what you’re trying to achieve with digital technologies.”
At the heart of the problem are rigid corporate cultures that do not readily embrace change as easily as those found in more nimble start-ups.
Alva Taylor, director of the Center for Digital Strategies at Tuck School of Business, said traditional enterprises have to reform established philosophies and cultures when trying to pivot with technology.
“Managing that evolution requires rethinking longstanding trade-offs between standardization and innovation, efficiency and flexibility, and centralization and decentralization,” he said.
Despite the difficulty, digital managers are ever-more in demand. Jaideep Prabhu, professor of enterprise at Cambridge Judge Business School, said that there is “absolutely” a need for companies to invest in digital-savvy talent: “Without the right people, it’s hard to achieve change objectives,” he said.