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Does Higher Ed Need a Chief Digital Officer?

Digital technology is fundamentally changing the nature of higher education — and its strategic leadership.

Chief Digital Officer


I must admit, I'm skeptical of any new C-level title, especially one as amorphous as chief digital officer. What can another executive accomplish that isn't covered by existing leadership and the talented people throughout an organization? And what exactly does "digital" mean, anyway?

The definition of digital is particularly unclear in higher education, and it varies from institution to institution. It has a lot to do with online learning, but could also include things like social media, digital libraries, mobile technology, data analytics and more. A better way to think about the "D" in CDO might be disruptive change: the way digital technology is fundamentally changing the nature of higher education.

Arguably, it's already the strategic role of the CIO to guide a university through technology change. But disruptive change is so big, so all-encompassing, that perhaps a CDO is needed to help bring it into focus — at least until it becomes second nature to everyone on campus. As Sree Sreenivasan, former CDO at Columbia University, noted in this month's cover story, "A chief digital officer is the equivalent to being a chief telephone officer when the phone was first introduced. People wanted to understand the strategy behind it, how to implement it and how to use it. They wondered if it would disrupt their life. Eventually everyone figured out how to use a phone and it became part of the workflow. There is a chance that will happen with this and you won't need a chief digital officer anymore. Everybody in the building will be a digital officer."

How do you know whether or not you need a CDO? In "Don't Let a Chief Digital Officer Steal the Best Part of Your Job," Forbes columnist Dan Woods provides a helpful scale:

"If you think the role of CDO is passé, it is likely you work at a company that is a digital native, like Amazon, Facebook, Google, or that ilk. To the staff at these firms CDO means nothing. You might as well just add digital to everyone’s title, because everyone is focused on optimizing a business that has digital DNA.

"If you already have a CDO or wonder how a CDO might help accomplish a variety of digital initiatives at your company, you probably have a transformation underway and are attempting to figure out how to make it work. Such companies are usually wide awake to the digital transformation at hand and are in the thick of a struggle.

"If the idea of a CDO just seems like a fad or irrelevant, it is likely that the impact of the current digital transformation that is changing almost every industry is perhaps lost on your company. Or you could be in the rare company or industry, and there are some out there, that really will not be digitized in the foreseeable future."

Where does your institution fall on the CDO scale?

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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