MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Digital enters the C-suite

Enter the Chief Digital Officer

Setting the pace for—or simply keeping up with—the digital revolution requires strong digital leadership, and top companies know it. The role of Chief Information Officer (CIO) has never been more critical, or more complex. Today’s CIOs are tasked with creating business value from big data, managing IT consumerization, driving the implementation of digital technology, and even facilitating an increasingly mobile workforce.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that 72% of CIOs polled as part of IDG’s 2017 State of the CIO admitted they are struggling to balance business innovation and operational excellence; 87 percent said the CIO role is more challenging than ever.

“The CIO experience has become a rollercoaster ride: an uphill challenge of budgets, talent shortages, and digital transformations and a downhill thrill-ride of executive advancement to the C-suite and business leadership for the fortunate few,” says George Westerman, Principal Research Scientist with the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy. "There’s never been a better time to be a great CIO or a worse time to be an average one.”

Enter the Chief Digital Officer

With the immensity of this role in mind, nearly 20% of the world’s 2500 largest public companies have added a new role to the C-suite—that of a Chief Digital Officer (CDO)—to help lead their digital agenda, according to the results of a new study from Strategy+Business. While a CDO's responsibilities also include IT operations and strategies within the business, CDOs are typically charged with rapid, comprehensive changes that must take place, from updating how a company works to building out entirely new businesses.

The CDO role can mean different things for different companies, however. Jim Fowler, VP and CIO of General Electric, speaking at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, said he believes the true focus of a CDO should be on building software and analytics products for commercial sale, while the CIO should focus on making the company work more effectively.

"If you're bringing a chief digital officer inside the company to make the company work more effective, more productive, that's the role of the CIO," Fowler said. "If you are going to sell commercial product and you're working to start to build software, analytics that you want to sell outside to your customers, then absolutely, a chief digital officer could put together marketing message, product strategy, figuring out how you commercialize — that's the value."

From any perspective, it’s clear that the new digital landscape is reshaping IT roles and responsibilities, and that IT leaders are playing a greater strategic role in their companies. Of the 558 CIOs who responded to the 2017 CIO Survey from CIO Magazine, 68% said that they have mutually shared, measurable goals with other C-level executives, and 64% of CIOs say their CEO consults with them on a frequent basis regarding business strategy.

The digital age is also reshaping other roles in the C-suite, including that of the CEO and CFO, who can play an integral part in spearheading digital transformation. Companies with a high digital quotient have fully integrated digital initiatives into their strategic-planning process. That means everyone in the crowded C-suite, regardless of title, must play a role in shaping and implementing that strategy.


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