View through blinds of people working in a conference room

Who Will Lead Digital? CEOs, Marketing Execs Are In Charge, For Now

October 2016


One’s definition of “digital transformation” may depend on one’s professional pursuits or station in the organization. To an IT leader, it likely translates to adoption of cloud and microservices. To a marketing or sales leader, it means e-commerce channels and social media. To a financial leader, it means data analytics and new payment platforms. So that means digital efforts are either contained within silos, or even exist within their own purpose-built silo.

We all know at some level that the ideal digital strategy would be to bring all these efforts together, so that raises another issue. Who’s in charge?

So far, digital transformation is largely led by the chief marketing officer. That’s borne out in a new study of 528 digital executives and “transformation strategists” by Altimeter, a Prophet Company, which finds more than one-third of executives (34%) say their CMOs are leading the digital charge. For 27%, the digital impetus comes right from the top — saying the CEO is in charge of digital.

Essentially, then, we’re seeing a highly technical endeavor being led by inherently non-tech business types. This is revolutionary in itself. Chief information officers, who have the tech knowledge and savvy to understand the technology implications of what’s going on, have taken a back seat. In the Altimeter study, only 19% say the CIO is in charge. “It’s understandable, as we found in earlier research that digital transformation is now about people first and technology second,” write Brian Solis and Jaimy Szymanski, both with Altimeter.

So far, only 15% report having chief digital officers leading the way — it’s unclear if this is still an emerging line of work, or if it’s melding into everyone else’s role, since digital is so important at all levels of the business.

Marketing executives and CEOs may be in charge since today’s digital efforts are relentlessly focusing on customers, more so than internal operations. More than half (55%) cite “evolving customer behaviors and preferences” as their top driver of digital transformation, the survey finds. Another 53% say the focus of their digital efforts are on gaining new markets. Forty-two percent cite digital as a response to regulatory or compliance requirements.

This is expanding to include the operational side of things, as Solis and Szymanski predict that internal agility tops digital transformation goals going forward. The survey finds “the need to accelerate innovation” (81%) topped digital transformation agendas going forward, followed by “the need to modernize the IT infrastructure with increased agility, flexibility, management, and security” (80%).

The current challenges to digital transformation efforts also are business-related in nature, versus technical, revealing another reason why leadership needs to continue from the business side of the house. Seventy-one percent indicate that their most important task is trying to gain an understanding of customer behavior, while 69% say they are having difficulty measuring or demonstrating return on investment from their efforts. Sixty-four percent and 62%, respectively, complain about lack of resources and lack of budget for their efforts. Now they understand the pain CIOs go through trying to justify technology investments from year to year.

It’s notable as well that while digital transformation is supposed to break down the silos of technology and data that have plagued enterprises for years, they may be setting up their own new silos. Eighty-one percent say they have “digital departments,” which tend to employ four to five full-time employees.  As  Solis and Szymanski put it, “this would imply that companies are ‘doing digital’ just to ’do digital’ without involving multiple stakeholders and making it a cross-functional effort.”

The Altimeter analysts recommend the following best practices to make digital transformation stick within even the most moribund corporate cultures:

  • “Study and map the digital customer experience.”
  • “Study and map the mobile customer journey.”
  • “Invest in ongoing customer research to better understand digital/mobile behaviors.”
  • “Develop a digital transformation roadmap.”
  • “Update/Innovate customer-facing technology in digital and mobile.”
  • “Drive strategies that engage and guide customers seamlessly through digital, mobile, and
    real-world journeys.”
  • “Improve processes/operations that expedite changes.”
  • “Build an agile, integrated, and scalable technology infrastructure.”
  • “Executives appoint someone to lead and pave the way for digital initiatives (budget, resources, culture), as well as manage expectations among shareholders, stakeholders, and the board.”
  • “Form a working team to drive initiatives, coordinate activities/resources, and be accountable.”
  • “Establish new metrics that measure progress and track new outcomes.”


This article was written by Joe McKendrick from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

BNY Mellon is the corporate brand of The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation and may be used as a generic term to reference the corporation as a whole and/or its various subsidiaries generally.  This material does not constitute a recommendation by BNY Mellon of any kind.  The information herein is not intended to provide tax, legal, investment, accounting, financial or other professional advice on any matter, and should not be used or relied upon as such.  The views expressed within this material are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of BNY Mellon.  BNY Mellon has not independently verified the information contained in this material and makes no representation as to the accuracy, completeness, timeliness, merchantability or fitness for a specific purpose of the information provided in this material.  BNY Mellon assumes no direct or consequential liability for any errors in or reliance upon this material.