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What do Chief Digital Officers do?

The digital transformation of industry needs to move up a gear, which is where chief digital officers (CDOs) come in. L’Usine Nouvelle met the CDOs at ERDF, L’Oréal, Pernod Ricard, and Renault.
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What do Chief Digital Officers do?
What do Chief Digital Officers do? © Saad Faruque - Flickr - C.C.

No sector will escape the transition to digital technology, whether automobile manufacturing, aeronautics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, energy, etc. This is because the phenomenon concerns products, markets, processes, organizations, and staff. To steer through this transformation as successfully as possible, more and more manufacturers are appointing a specific manager called the chief digital officer (CDO). These appointments are made by the CEO and frequently include a place on the executive committee. "Digital technology is becoming institutionalized throughout society," says Antonin Torikian, director of Institut Fabernovel. "The CDO role is therefore being formalized and now appears in organization charts."

Above all, CDOs regard themselves as accelerators or catalysts of digital transformation. In most cases, digital transformation starts with pilot projects, digital champions, and collaboration with start-ups. It then needs to be streamlined, organized, and transmitted to the whole company. A CDO’s role is to activate the right levers and give a company the basis on which to consolidate gains. Generally speaking, CDOs start by carrying out an inventory to identify projects the company has already started, as well as its needs and the people involved. They define a company’s digital priorities for the coming months, which will guide the strategy to be pursued.

"CDOs do not all have the same scope of activity," notes Lubomira Rochet, who holds the post at L’Oréal. "But there are some cross-cutting themes, such as innovation, reinventing brands in the digital age, and partnering the move towards e-commerce and customization." Nevertheless, their priorities all include two fundamental points. First comes data. "An organization turning digital generates a lots of data,” says Torikian. “A pilot is essential for this industrial, economic, and ethical issue." Next comes digital culture, which needs to be shared by the whole company. A CDO’s strategy will fail completely without this essential foundation. As all CDOs also confirm, DHRs are essential allies. Digital transformation changes a company’s recruitment, training, career structures and work. CDOs therefore set up training and refresher courses for all staff. These obviously include MOOCs or tutorials, but links with the digital sector, whether large companies or start-ups, via partnerships, co-innovation, or even company internships, also help incorporate digital culture into a company. "This culture can be a key recruitment issue for digital native generations entering the labour market," observes Torikian.

A job that is reinvented every day

In terms of organization, if there is one word that CDOs abhor it is ‘silo’. Creating a new one is out of the question since most of them are only in charge of a business unit. "On the contrary, their job involves breaking down all silos in a company and its business areas. These put a brake on any clear digital strategy for the executive committee and staff," says Torikian.

CDOs are in charge of very small teams of around ten people, made up of multi-skilled, agile, adaptable digital technology experts who use the growth drivers in each of the company’s business areas. They are digital champions, who have already set up projects and have either already had a career in digital technology or are very drawn to it. These small teams are a CDO’s start-up. They use agile methods, trial and error, collaboration, project mode, etc. CDOs reinvent their job, processes, strategies, models, and assessment tools on a daily basis, referring mainly to codes governing the digital sector. For this reason, they seek out peer support. “This is a new area for everyone,” confirms Antonia McCahon, digital acceleration director at Pernod Ricard. “I therefore meet up with the CDOs at L’Oréal and Axa every other month.” Lubomira Rochet at L’Oréal, confirms this: "Even though there are differences, we do a lot of work together, especially on how to assess the performance of our digital investments."

Christian Buchel works at EDSO, a group of European electricity distributors that develops and sets up smart grids. He is a somewhat unusual choice for this post; ERDF chose to appoint an old hand from the energy sector. Although a specialist in transforming organizations, he is also a digital technology expert: something of an exception. CDOs are still mainly chosen for their career path in digital technology. For example, Lubomira Rochet, Antonia McCahon, Patrick Hofstetter (Renault), and Yves Tyrode (SNCF). Some of them only have slight previous experience of their company’s business. And not all of them are digital native thirtysomethings with a background in communications or marketing.

On the other hand, they share the same initially surprising aspiration: they would like their post to disappear. Not straightaway of course, but within five to ten years when their company’s digital transformation is complete. By then, everyone will have forgotten about this transformation and their work will be done.

Emmanuelle Delsol

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