Your digital c-suite: Do you need a digital-specific executive in your business?

Department store David Jones recently announced it was creating a new digital executive role so it could better handle its transition into becoming an omni-channel retailer. While some would argue DJs should have done this years ago, what are the benefits of creating digital-specific roles in a business now?

Shouldn’t it be a given that we’re all digital now anyway?

It’s been written often enough that all businesses are in the midst of digital disruption. We’ve become accustomed to the most obvious examples coming from industries such as media (think Google) and retail (think Amazon), but with the fast-coming reality of such digital disruptive technologies as the Internet of Things, 3D printing and virtual reality, many more traditional industries will be feeling the heat of transformation.

That old mainstay and symbol of the industrial age production model, automobile manufacturing, is now under threat from forces such as Uber and the driverless car movement. The way we think about Sony now – a flagship company diminished in the digital tidal wave – might be how we think about another giant of Japanese manufacturing, Toyota, in the next decade or so.

The threat of being digitally outpaced by your rivals is a reality for all companies, from the tiniest SME to the biggest multinational. Which is why the question of how you structure and resource your management to handle this transformation is so important.

This report by PwC notes that around 6% of companies globally have appointed chief digital officers (CDO), which is a relatively small number. These appointments have been made mainly by larger corporations, which no doubt have the resources to throw at such positions. Flexibility is cited as a key quality for CDOs:

Flexibility is perhaps the single most important success factor for executives new to the position. CDOs who can adapt to rapidly changing circumstances while staying tightly aligned with their companies’ business goals will be in the best position to lead the way to a full digital transformation.

Another key finding of the report is the CDO role is transformative and usually finite. The CDO is brought on board to steer the organisation through the uncharted waters of digital transformation until such time as digital has been fully integrated into the operations and thinking of the organisation:

Ultimately, the goal of every CDO is to ingrain the digital agenda so deeply and efficiently that it will become a way of life for everyone and every function in the organisation, and a priority for every member of its C-suite.

There are Australian companies already doing this. The CDO of Australian liquor retailer Dan Murphy, Faye Ilhan, views her role as being “transient”, as she explained in this interview with trade publication CMO:

“I see the CDO role as being a transient role… It is a role that helps organisations merge physical and digital for customers for a single seamless experience. But that’s easier said than done, and so many organisations struggle with it.”

In the case of David Jones, part of the executive reshuffle includes the departure of David Robinson, the company’s group executive of marketing, financial services and customer insights. Robinson had been charged with many of the tasks involved in overhauling the retailer’s operations in order for it to become a more adept omni-channel player. David Jones is now on the hunt for a group executive of digital, underlining perhaps that it is still struggling to come to grips with its necessary transformation.

The moves at David Jones come a little less than a year after its main rival, Myer, appointed Mark Cripsey into the newly created role of chief digital and data officer. Myer has also struggled with its move into the new retail world reality of omni-channel and digital offerings.

It’s a sign both of these established retailers are at the very least paying lip service to digital transformation. It remains to be seen if they are both too late to the party. However, as the established US department store Neiman Marcus has shown, department stores like Myer and David Jones can find their digital groove with the right management.

David Jones and Myer are big businesses with more resources to lavish on new executive positions than most SMEs. What you need to do in your business will depend on factors such as your size, market position, industry and brand. But rest assured (actually, don’t rest and don’t be assured), you need to be on top of not just the digital challenges your business might face, but also the opportunities available. This is not necessarily a doom and gloom scenario unless you make it one.

For smart businesses, digital transformation has the potential to open new markets and tap new revenue streams. Applying digital thinking to everything from your supply chain through to marketing and delivery means your business can become more efficient, more creative, more productive, and more ready than ever to not only survive but also prosper in the new economy.

Don’t silo digital; integrate it into everything your organisation does and you will start to change in ways you never thought possible. For that to happen, you don’t need to append “digital” to the title of your next managerial recruit. What matters is that you hire people who have the skill set, attitude and comprehension to make digital work in your business. And as a business owner or chief executive, you need to back them to go ahead and make it happen.

Fi Bendall is CEO of The Bendalls Group, a business that leads STRATEGY : ADVOCACY : MOBILE delivering the business acumen to drive effective positive results in a disruptive economy for the C-suite. Fi has recently won a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence award. 


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