"Coursera is an example of a different approach -- we want to use it to learn how to improve the experience of our in-person classes, as well as reach out to the world," says Sreenivasan. "Our first three classes had more than 100,000 signups, and we have several ideas on how to take this further to improve the experience of our on-campus students as well as those in hybrid programs."
Doe-Anderson: Leading through digital disruption
At Doe-Anderson, the fourth-oldest advertising agency in the U.S., Joe Pierce has been the CDO since October 2009, reporting to the company's chief creative officer. In his job, he oversees whatever the company's clients want to do that's digital, including websites, banner ads, mobile apps and online advertising buys.
"Almost anyone you meet in the land of brand/digital marketing has a horror story they can tell you about the website that never worked, the app no one downloaded, the banners no one clicked on, etc.," says Pierce. "Usually, these horror stories stem from the simple fact that there wasn't a geek in the room who had the experience, wisdom, gravitas, mojo, trust, whatever you want to call it to steer the team away from risk and to keep the focus on the win."
To Pierce, this gets to the heart of what the CDO is all about. "You're a Sherpa. It's your job to get your client, or organization, to the top of the digital mountain as quickly and safely as possible."
In making that journey, Pierce's IT background, as well as stints elsewhere as a CEO and COO, has come in handy, he says.
"You can't be a strategy guy unless you understand the technology that you have to implement to fulfill that strategy," says Pierce. "And you can't do business in the C-level suite now unless you've got that digital knowledge to talk business with a customer. Having someone in the room that has that experience can help. I call it being 'the nerd at the table.'"
Will the CDO title endure?
There's little doubt the nascent Chief Digital Officer role is in flux. This month, Sreenivasan is scheduled to leave Columbia to become the first-ever CDO at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he will report to the associate director for collections and administration. In his new job, Sreenivasan will explore new digital opportunities for the Met and lead its Digital Media Department, which is responsible for managing and producing digital content.
Smith too recently left Forbes, but not for another CDO title: He's now vice president of revenue platforms and operations at Hearst Magazines Digital Media, where he reports to the company's president and is responsible for aligning technology, content creation and advertising.
Which leads to the question: will the CDO craze last, or is it simply an interim title useful in the short term for corporations undergoing digital transformation?
Sreenivasan says CDOs are new and needed today (and notes that Columbia plans to hire a replacement CDO to fill his position), but acknowledges that could certainly change in the future. "I imagine there was once a chief telephone officer at Columbia long ago, but that wasn't needed after people figured out how to use the phone. This job could go that way, that someday they won't need somebody with this title."
McDonald, the Gartner analyst, agrees. "It's perfectly natural to create a C-level role when the technology is new, but as the organization builds an understanding of that technology, it works its way back into core operations. You can be a digital company without having a CDO."