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Chief Digital Officer: Hot new tech title or flash in the pan?

Todd R. Weiss | July 30, 2013
Enterprises like Sears, Starbucks and Harvard are hiring Chief Digital Officers to help monetize digital content, better connect with customers and drive their businesses forward. But does every company need one?

Digital assets defined

All companies have digital data, but digital assets -- content that can be shared with the public or a select subset for profit, improved customer relationships or heightened brand awareness -- are a different beast, one that varies widely by business sector.

For an events firm like George Little, digital assets comprise materials such as audio and video from conferences, as well as other stored content from events; this is then repurposed and sold by the company, says CDO Jason Brown.

For a print, online and broadcast media company like Calkins Media, digital revenue opportunities come from advertising to mobile users, targeting ads to online visitors and finding new opportunities that no one has considered before, according to CDO Guy Tasaka.

For a healthcare provider, digital content could be general medical information about procedures and therapies for patients and prospective patients, ideally showcasing the expertise of the provider's in-house medical staff. And for a manufacturer, digital assets could encompass product catalogs, advertising, white papers and video and audio content aimed at enhancing customer satisfaction with current purchases and spurring new business as well.

Columbia: Changing delivery of digital assets

At Columbia University in New York City, Sree Sreenivasan, a journalism and media professor at the school, also held the title of CDO beginning July 2012, reporting to the school's chief academic officer. His main responsibilities? To "address digital needs to be sure that the school is adjusting and morphing with all the changes that are happening" in the digital marketplace, he says.

Sreenivasan has been cataloguing and placing online two decades worth of media initiatives at Columbia (they used to send VCR tapes of classes to long-distance students in the late 1980s, he reports) and helping faculty, departments and schools learn more about online learning, along with social and digital media.

Sree Sreenivasan. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art Education is changing. We need someone to be looking at [digital assets] centrally. That's my role. Sree Sreenivasan, CDO

Columbia has offered online courses for more than a decade and distance learning since 1986, but those efforts typically have been decentralized inside the various schools, Sreenivasan explains. The goal today is to build a single site where all the online material -- from individual courses to entire programs of study -- can be easily found.

"Education is changing," said Sreenivasan. "We need someone to be looking at it centrally. That's my role. We are now trying new things."

One such initiative is a third-party site called Coursera, where people anywhere can sign up to take online courses for free from top educational institutions around the world.


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