Cio vs cdo

CIO vs. CDO: Roles in Digital Transformation

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CIO vs. CDO – what’s the difference and who takes the reigns in a digital transformation effort?

Today, there are so many digital leadership roles, it can be easy to confuse them. 


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In this post, we’ll clarify the difference between these two important roles.

What’s the Difference Between CIO and CDO?

The two IT leadership positions Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Digital Officer (CDO) sound similar, but they actually have very different responsibilities. 

To compound matters, there is a third executive role with the same initials as the Chief Data Officer: the Chief Digital Officer (CDO). This role also has different responsibilities from the other two mentioned above.

Let’s take a closer look at what each title means and how each role differs.

Chief Information Officer (CIO) Responsibilities

A Chief Information Officer (CIO) is typically responsible for the overall IT strategy and implementation of an organization’s technology infrastructure.

Here is a quick summary of the types of tasks CIOs are responsible for:

  • Designing IT strategies and digital-first business strategies
  • Supervising the procurement of new IT tools and technologies
  • IT service management

In short, CIOs are often the highest-level IT leaders in a business. Many other IT leaders, including CDOs, report to the CIO who, in turn, reports to the CEO and the board.

Chief Data Officer (CDO) Responsibilities

Chief Data Officers (CDOs) are increasingly being asked to provide data-driven insights and recommendations to help improve the business. 

With the rise of Big Data, CDOs can help make the most of enterprise data, analytics, AI, and related technologies to both predict and respond to risks and opportunities. 

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A few of their tasks include:

  • Designing a company’s data strategy and aligning that strategy with the organization’s objectives
  • Implementing and maintaining data-related IT systems
  • Optimizing the organization’s use of data
  • Leading initiatives related to data

It’s important that organizations understand that the CDO role is still fairly new and evolving. Not every organization will need a CDO, and other departments might still be responsible for certain types of data.

Chief Digital Officer (CDO) Responsibilities 

The Chief Digital Officer (CDO) is another IT leadership role that focuses on digitization – that is, translating analog business processes into digital ones.

Examples of digitization can include the use of digital records instead of physical ones or the use of online conferencing instead of conferencing on the telephone.

This role became quite popular, with nearly one in five large firms employing a Chief Digital Officer, according to PwC. However, other research suggests that this role may be in decline and that many Chief Digital Officers had a difficult time accomplishing their main objective: digital transformation.

A key problem, according to one officer quoted by the World Economic Forum, had to do with the attitudes of the hiring organization:

“It’s less about digital than transformation. And transformation is not welcome anywhere because it’s a big change. Nobody wants to change because you are changing ways of working, behaviors, sometimes territories. The fear is a very important component of our role. People fear change.”

This last point, the fear of change, highlights the disconnect between the “dream” of digital transformation and the realities that come with organizational change. Namely, change does deliver benefits, but the road to transformation takes work and it can be frightening.

In short, as the author of the aforementioned article put it: 

“CDOs do not fail because they are unqualified, unmotivated or incompetent. They fail because they are set up to fail.”

Despite the lackluster performance of this position, digital transformation is here to stay – under the leadership of other executives, such as the CIO.

CIO vs. CDO: Roles in Digital Transformation

Many organizations, as mentioned, have hired Chief Digital Officers to help their companies transition to new digital-first operating models. 

Yet rather than hiring a new position to lead digital transformation efforts, many are turning to their own CIOs for help.

For instance, according to research firms such as Gartner, among others, CIOs are responsible for:

  • Designing and leading digital transformation initiatives
  • Investing in emerging technology
  • Creating digital innovation hubs in the organization
  • Educating other executives on the value of digital technology
  • Cultivating a digital-first culture

In short, CIOs are extending their responsibilities beyond IT service management (ITSM) to include business strategy and business transformation.

Since they are already part of an organization’s hierarchy, they are often in a better position to lead digital transformation efforts. 

Also, as the de facto IT leaders within the company, the Chief Data Officers will usually report to them. While CDOs may not be directing digital transformation efforts, they are still crucial – and as big data, AI, and analytics become more prevalent, the CDO’s role will become even more important.

Key Takeaways

In the past, CIOs were responsible solely for IT service management, but that is changing as the modern organization evolves. 

While the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) has led digitization in many organizations, there are signs that the CIO is taking the helm in this regard.

CIOs, as a result, are often responsible for designing and leading digital transformation efforts, with support from other IT leaders.

Chief Data Officers, for instance, have become more necessary as data-driven technology becomes more and more common. In the years ahead, we can expect both CIOs and CDOs to take a more prominent role in digital transformation leadership.

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