Is Digital a Culture or a Strategy?

OmniChannel Media catches up with four industry CDOs to get to the bottom of the digital transformation.


Is digital a culture? Should the Chief Digital Officer be charged with educating the business on ways they can tap into their customer’s digital ecosystems.

Or is digital transformation a strategy. Which requires a team whose aim is to create a robust digital springboard, equipped for the roaring 20’s, a decade which is set to see innovations such as the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, predictive analytics, and 3D printing mature.

As digital evolves and takes precedence, there is also a potential for digital leaders to rise up through the ranks, and drive business operations at an enterprise level. The CDO could eventually become the mast that sails executive decisions at board level.

To explore this in more detail, OmniChannel Media’s Peter Galvin caught up with four digital executives to explore the evolving role of the CDO, and how businesses should be driving digital from within.

Is the role of the CDO to build culture? Or execute and deliver on strategy?

Dana Teahan, Digital Director, Divide by Zero: It is the role of all C-Suite executives to execute strategy and build culture.

The other important thing to think about is internal culture.

I’m of the view that if you look at all of the innovative organisations out there – the Facebooks or Air BnBs, that are on the cutting edge of digital, they are actually affecting external cultural change.

Dana Teahan, Digital Director, Divide by Zero
Dana Teahan, Digital Director, Divide by Zero

The CDO then is a double-edged sword, they’ve got to change internal culture, and how people are digitally focussed… so they have to look at how they make their business influence an external culture.

For a CDO officer, they are definitely responsible for building culture and [are becoming] more and more responsible for building what I call the technical competency of an organisation. So as the business becomes [increasingly] savvy, it is kind of the role of the CDO to teach the organisation on how to be a digital organisation.

Faye Ilhan, Chief Digital Officer for Dan Murphy’s: 
It is both – digital transformation requires a cultural change at all levels. A successful execution and delivery of the strategy requires all teams to believe in the change and buy into why we are doing it.

Leanne Fry, Chief Digital Officer, Fair Work Ombudsman: It is both. You can not have one without the other. You can build your strategy but unless you have the culture to support it [it won’t work]. Digital is about change, from small incremental changes, to major transformations. To embed any of the changes that you make, it must be both.

From a government perspective, the difference is in the policy angle. Fair Work is the industrial regulator. We are responsible and accountable for compliance within the industrial relations regime. Only a small proportion actively set out not to comply. So a big part of what we do is to make it easier for people to comply and reduce the regulatory burden, particularly on small business.

So the business model there is a very strong service delivery model.Again there is the regulation policy angle, we have targets that we need to try aim for in relation to compliance.

From that perspective, your motivators are different, but the way we do it and quite often the outcomes have similarities.

Sven Lindell, Chief Digital Officer, Bras N Things: I think the CDO’s role is educating the entire organisation and not just the digital team. I think it is about educating the organisation on the benefits of rolling out digital improvements across the entire gamut of possibilities. I think the culture of the business…well, that’s everyone’s responsibility.

Should digital be a whole of business (WoB) concern?

DT: Yes! Absolutely! If you look at information technology 30 years ago IT rose up as a central part of most organisations. A lot of the focus on IT was about systems; getting them up, running, and supporting those systems.

You couldn’t look at IT in isolation because if you did that you wouldn’t be leveraging the technology properly. Digital is entering that phase where it needs to be a WoB concern.

The reason it needs to be WoB [is in the way] consumers interact with brands and organisations.

You need to deploy digital smartly across all channels. Whether it is engaging with a call centre or going online. Look at shopping habits – even their consumption of things like entertainment – it is so fragmented now if you were a traditional organisation and you weren’t thinking about digital, you are really going to be completely left behind.

LF: Definitely. It is not just about technology. I describe digital as a utility now – it is like electricity – it is there embedded – you switch it on and switch it off – and actually there is no such a thing as ‘off’.

It has been described as a ‘social machine’. I think we are well and truly there now. It is not the technologist designing the internet anymore – it is the people – it is the social element.

Therefore, if you define it that way then it has to be whole of business, it is not about the underlying platforms…it is about how it is used, what it is used for, what do customers want from it, and what they are expecting from it. There’s a far different relationship created between customers and companies, and certainly citizens and government.

Faye Ilhan
Faye Ilhan, CDO, Dan Murphy’s

FI: It is no longer an add-on or afterthought, the more customers we have wanting to engage in this medium, the more integral it becomes to our business.

Digital plays an important role in driving customers to our physical stores. They want the same quality experience in both mediums so it is important that we get an omni-channel experience right.

I think part of it is that it is to ensure we do not fall back into old ways. By having the likes of this role in place, it helps to get every part of the organisation looking for digital improvements.

I think government is just starting to recognise that they can be disruptors.

With the formation of the Digital Technology Office, we have a strong commitment to looking at how government works [and] what services it can provide, as well as how we provide them in a more efficient way.

Do you think the role of CDO will evolve? And how so?

Leanne Fry, CDO, FairWork

LF: There are people who say that the CDO will evolve back into the CIO role.

There are organisations in the States where over the last 12 months they actually merged their CIO role with their CMO.

If you accept the CDO as ubiquitous then it is not about technology. It is about what we do, how we do it, why we do it, how we interact, and what relationships we have.

We’ve carved out roles to tackle the change and the speed of the change, but I think it will need to evolve into something far more organic.

FI: I believe the role of the CDO will evolve to a point of extinction – it will become an integral part of businesses and be placed in the foreground of everything they do.

DT: I think we’re writing the future as we go. We are in an interesting time right now because digital blends into a mix of marketing and technology… When you look at the role of the CDO it can be measured. There is an issue about power here, the role is powerful now and will become more so.

You have to balance this off with the fact that it is a very immature role. I think it is in two ways – management is not understanding the CDO and a lot of people coming into the role itself who do not appreciate what it actually means.

CDO’s are learning on the go [whereas the C-Suite officer has a clear legacy and a well-defined role.]

Sven Lindell, CDO, BrasNThings

SL: Like any role, it will shift and change. The CDO might not be a relevant role for all organisations. But it absolutely will change. At the moment, it is all about the education and once it is there it is about making sure it flourishes.

It may morph into more on the operations side. And some CDO’s might morph closer to the CMO side, just depending on what the organisation requires.


DT: The CDO will evolve [so it means that having a great CDO is someone] who not only understands digital – but understands what a business is trying to do.

The CDO will ascend to the top level of the [corporate] pyramid, though never to the point where they are right on top since they have a very functional role.

If you are a smart business, you will recognise just how important digital is. Even though for many people [right now], it is a minor footprint of their organisation.

LF: I am old enough to remember ecommerce and the web starting to permeate business and I was there going ‘we better come to grips with this’.

If you are a senior executive or a middle manager, you can not not be digital [and what that means to stakeholders and customers.] I will expect that it will be a capability set any executive has. That is certainly the message I have been pushing.

Part of the role is to make it relatable.

Is digital a function of the technology team?

DT: No. It is a custodian. Technology enables digital. But it is its own beast. Technology is only one part of what digital is these days – you need really good technology but I don’t know whether technology is at the forefront of digital.

The CDO must have oversight on everything that that can possibly mean?


Source: DanMurhpy's
Source: DanMurhpy’s

FI: At Dan Murphy’s our technology team is part of the digital business unit and aligned to customer and business needs. Digital is a function of the Customer Experience Team. Through digital, we offer convenience, transparency, and personalisation by using data to pinpoint what our customers want. The systems that enable us to deliver these experiences are enabled by the technology team.

SL: For us no! It sits separate from tech. You have got digital practices and technology practices that need to be rolled out throughout the entire business and they need to be linked really closely with our online world. And I think traditional CTOs have been a little slower to build these concepts in this area.

It started in tech around the web and the architecture and platforms that sit behind it.

Source: FairWork

But…it is not just about the how, it is about the why, and the what. I think the CDO is no different. It is part of the role I have done here, we canvas what is possible by actually delivering pilots – not just talk about it or frame it but actually do it.

The way we do it is important – I feel strongly that digital as a capability is something that senior management has to come to grips with.

Is technology at the board level or is it a function of corporate? From a CIO perspective at one end you are an order taker – business directs and you fulfil it as a supplier. At the other end, you are a trusted partner that actually has a leadership role.


As the digital ecosystem of the modern customer continues to grow and evolve, organisations will need to ensure they have the power to connect. The CDO’s primary role will be to drive this, as well as foster a culture of digital that ensures products and services are digital-centric.

Driving ‘digital-centricity’ within a business is critical to responding to the disruptive forces of an ever-changing marketplace. If the CDO is not already engaging with business operations at a high level, they will be soon.