There is no one simple answer to "Who should lead Digital Efforts?" I would like to dive into this question a bit in this short space to get the discussion going for those who have not dealt with this issue or for organizations looking to make a mid-course correction. Since only 10 - 15% of organizations would say that they are "digital" today and only 5% would say their customer experience is seamless and compelling, I think it's safe to say that this is still fertile ground to plant with digital leadership. Let's explore the advantages of each typical role for leading digital efforts.
CEO (Chief Executive Officer):
With the CEO in charge things could get done quicker because of the span of influence and the desire to get all of the stove pipe business functions working together on behalf of the customers, stockholders, employees, partners and other parties. While this top down approach is great, the CEO is spread too thin to usually get this done unless it is a green field (new) company.
CIO (Chief Information Officer):
Since digital implies applying new and emerging technologies, who is better at dealing with technical issues? This might seem like the easy answer, but we have grown utility type CIOs over the past decade that are aimed at keeping the lights on and the costs low. This actually could be risky because the IT folks tend to slow things down, sorry to say. However, if you have a fresh visionary CIO with drive, this is a good place to start the proposals and govern forward.
CDO (Chief Digital Officer):
The CDO is a person who looks at the volatile and emerging digital space and helps guide an organization to apply the right technology to the right issues while softly guiding people change and legacy leverage. Since this is a full time endeavor, the focus is sharp. The issue come around working with the other leaders in a wise way to help them understand and implement change.
CMO (Chief Marketing Officer):
The marketing executive should be closest to the customer and since excellent customer engagement is the goal, this is a logical place to start. The CMO can easily take an "outside in: view of your organization, but the knowledge of how to apply technology successfully can be a real challenge
CSO (Chief Sales Officer):
Since digital is aimed at raising more revenue, a case can be made for have sales lead the digital effort. Since selling can have a short term mentality and typically does not know the technology either, the person has to be just the right one to balance the tug for immediate revenue.
COO (Chief Operating Officer):
Quite often the behavior an organizations' processes represent the organization to the outside world, a case can be made for the COO, who is aimed at effective and efficient operations. Since much of the funding for digital is likely to come from efficiency savings, a case can be made for this role.
A visionary department head, who has fire in the belly, is often a good way to "sand box" initial digital efforts without the risk of large scale impact. Since the department head is not usually at the "C suite" level the effort becomes more difficult, but an up and coming "C" level person would be able to get it done. After a success, this person could rise to lead other digital efforts.
Picking the right digital leader for the times is important and might change over the long scale of a digital journey. The key is setting up good governance and good measurements on expected outcomes. A separate governance body within the organization with the CEO at the head works well.