As they grapple with the challenges and opportunities of new technology, many colleges and universities are making room for chief digital officers (CDOs), who will lead the way across the evolving landscape. Academia is echoing the private sector, where digital is the fastest growing revenue stream and companies need a knowledgeable champion, strategist and visionary all rolled into one.
“One day, all education will be done by teachers who understand and thrive in this digital world and by students who thrive in that world,” says Sree Sreenivasan, a journalism professor who became Columbia University’s first CDO last July.
Sreenivasan’s priorities include cataloging Columbia’s online initiatives, sharing what’s working⎯and what’s not⎯across campus, and educating faculty about online learning. “What we’re trying to do is coordinate and help the [Columbia] universe think through how to deal with the online education evolution that’s taking place all around us,” he said.
David Mathison is the founder of the CDO Club, which in February hosted the first CDO Summit in New York City. He is consulting for six universities looking to hire CDOs. After reviewing hundreds of resumes, Mathison says the biggest surprise has been that candidates’ backgrounds are largely entrepreneurial.
“They are coming out of these high-tech environments, with successes behind them in the digital world, and being called on by bigger companies,” he said. “They are technical, but that’s not the main skill that gets them hired.”
What gets them hired, he says, is how they answer this question: “Can you come in here and quickly evaluate our system . . . to give us short-term solutions and longer-term goals?”
Mathison is studying the emerging role of CDOs and says their functions vary, depending on how much an organization has shifted in its digital evolution. In broad terms, CDOs increase revenue through digital products, decrease costs through digital fulfillment, improve customer service and improve the return on mobile and online investments. They also help organizations respond to disruptors, or innovations with game-changing potential. To many in academia, that means massive open online courses (MOOCs).
“There weren’t many [CDOs] around five years ago, and in academia it’s really been in the last year or two, with the MOOCs that have really spooked everyone,” Mathison said.
While many universities have a director of online education or a VP of e-learning, very few schools have hired a CDO. In addition to Sreenivasan, there is Perry Hewitt at Harvard University. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a CDO, Brent Turner, who says that as of January he has pulled back to focus his work on the MIT Technology Review.
Sreenivasan says leadership support is key as institutions consider CDO positions. For example, the chairman of Columbia’s board of trustees is Bill Campbell, former president and CEO at Intuit and a former executive vice president at Apple.
“We’re just getting started in this process of coming up with a strategy, but the main thing is we have support at the very top of the university,” Sreenivasan says.
At the University of Maryland–Baltimore County, Greg Williams directs the graduate program in instructional systems development. Because UMBC has relatively few online programs, there is no official coordinator; instead, Williams fills that role by virtue of his expertise. Schools are spread across the spectrum, from informal advocates to CDOs, with many roles in between, Williams says.
Often, individual professors drive online programs because of their personal interest, while the university maintains a neutral stance, Williams says. But robust programs require advocacy and investment. “It’s infrastructure, it’s training of faculty, it’s providing student services in a different way.”
Increasingly, it may be CDOs who address such issues. Two years ago, Mathison identified 75 CDOs in the business world; today, there are hundreds. According to Gartner, a quarter of all organizations will have CDOs by 2015. Mathison doesn’t believe there will be that many CDOs but agrees it’s a reasonable estimate for the number of high-level positions with responsibility for digital initiatives. “I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon,” he says.