Demystifying The Role Of Chief Digital Officer

Bertram Schulte

Change is in the air. From Fortune 500 companies to nimble startups, companies of all sizes are embracing the need for digital transformation and creating chief digital officer (CDO) positions.

But rapid change often creates confusion. There is no template for a CDO; it means something different at every company. The CDO position is an anomaly within the organizational design and setup of each company, and if it’s successfully implemented, it will actually disappear within the next five years. The CDO is a temporary way for organizations to embrace a fundamental change that goes across the whole value chain and involves every corporate function. A CDO is like a king or queen without land, charged with a simple mission: To make the company digital. And while the position is a little different at every company, there are three common misunderstandings.

1. A CDO is not a CIO or a CTO.

There is often confusion between the role of the CDO and chief information officer (CIO) and/or chief technology officer (CTO). At SAP, I define a CDO as the person causing momentum or unrest behind the company’s digital transformation. I am a facilitator of change that needs to occur across SAP – touching nearly all areas of the business. The nomination of a CDO means that the organization understands the challenges that come with the arrival of digital technology. A CDO’s job is to tackle these hurdles head-on by working with all corporate functions. However, a CDO does not work in a vacuum off to the side, running new things, but is focused on transforming what already exists, helping the entire company shift to a digital mindset.

But while the technology that underpins the transformation is important, it’s not my top focus. That’s where a CIO and/or CTO comes in. A CIO or CTO leads the development of the technology powering the transformation, while I focus more on evangelizing and overseeing digital transformation from a business and process perspective. I often ask myself: “How digital can be leveraged to advance our agenda?” Of course, technology underpins many of my projects, but running the technical aspects often falls outside of my focus.

2. A CDO is not a professional keynote speaker.

Another common misconception of CDOs is that they spend all their time evangelizing digital transformation at events and not running an actual business, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. At SAP, I am responsible for running SAP’s digital business and helping provide customers with one seamless, digital commercial experience.

This includes making my numbers, providing customer feedback, and establishing a rhythm of business is the center of attention. That means some days I focus more on the marketing/sales side of the business, while other days finance and business operations have my attention, and other times I focus on how our product integrates with commercial models. But frequently, it’s a mix of everything. One day might be spent in conferences with SAP board members discussing long-term digital growth strategy, while the next I am running meetings with our different business-unit leads. Delivering tangible results and hitting key performance indicators (KPIs) underpin all of my actions.

I don’t ignore raising the general awareness of digital entities across the company, of course. Things like speaking at conferences, promoting social media content, and yes, even writing articles like this one, are all important. But leaders who focus solely on digital evangelism without running a digital business are only telling part of a story. A true CDO is measured with a combination of concrete numbers and digital awareness.

3. A CDO is not a customer experience novice.

The role of customer experience is incredibly important and cannot be ignored by a CDO, and this is especially true at SAP. SAP’s customers, developers, and users now demand that their unique B2B buying journeys match the ease and simplicity of their B2C experiences. That’s why we expanded our scope to truly enable our customers to conduct business digitally with SAP across all business areas. At SAP, customer experience means creating a digital platform where customers can discover, try, buy, and manage SAP and partner solutions all in one place. By connecting all the touchpoints within an organization, SAP is giving its customers control over how they experience their digital-buying journey.

It’s also part of the CDO’s job to lead by example, and at SAP, that means transforming how our customers shop for SAP and partner solutions by running on our own platform. Allowing transaction capability at SAP.com, SAP Store, and SAP App Center exemplifies our goal to create simple and connected digital customer experiences. Every customer’s digital journey is unique, and as a CDO, it’s part of my job to make it as satisfying as possible for our customers.

The sales organization oversees the customer, finance runs the books, the product organization owns the product, and marketing might run the overall experience. But it is the job of a CDO to bring these units together into one digital motion to make sense for the customer and the business. The CDO is truly a king or queen without land, but part of an exciting digital mission.

For more on digital leadership, see The C-Suite Gets An Upgrade.


Bertram Schulte

About Bertram Schulte

Bertram Schulte serves as SAP’s chief digital officer (CDO), running the digital business, overseeing digital customer strategy, and helping provide customers one seamless, digital experience.