The Latest C-Suite Title For Tech Leaders? CDIO

Author Atif Rafiq
Atif Rafiq, a former leader at companies such as McDonald’s, Volvo and Amazon, argues that IT and digital are merging.

More CIOs are now becoming CDIOs, or chief digital information officers, which combines digital and IT under one leader, says Atif Rafiq. This evolving role is slowly “retiring” the notion of IT.

Author of the new book, Decision Sprint: The New Way to Innovate into the Unknown and Move from Strategy to Action, Rafiq has held CIO and other C-Suite roles at McDonald’s, Volvo and MGM Resorts, and he has served in leadership roles at digital native companies like Amazon, Yahoo! and AOL.

Rafiq was the first chief digital officer in the history of the Fortune 500, a trailblazing role he pioneered at McDonald’s, and he rose to the president level in the Fortune 300. He spoke with StrategicCIO360 about how CIOs need to evolve, why you should lead with questions and the importance of curiosity.

What is driving the trend for the CDIO role, which combines digital and IT under one leader?  

The main driver is to establish a common bar and north star for the technology that enables a company to serve customers and employees. At the start of the digitization movement, companies looked to a CDO or digital function to establish consumer-facing systems and software—often for the first time. A strong CDO could help accomplish this to the same standard as tech companies such as Google or Amazon. These leaders helped traditional companies launch and scale e-commerce and digital consumer experiences, giving customers new ways to interact and growing business channels in the process. 

CEOs then pondered why they shouldn’t extend the same idea to all the systems within the organization. One of the first CEOs to do this was Hakan Samuelsson. Hakan was Volvo’s CEO and he recruited me in 2017. I took a leap of faith and joined Volvo as CDO and global CIO. Interestingly, I had never run an IT department before, yet Hakan gave me 1,500 IT people to manage. Why did that turn out to be a smart move?

I was not only the first CDO of a global company to expand into CIO responsibilities, I was the first one to “retire” the notion of IT. One of my biggest moves was to rebrand “IT” to “enterprise digital.” The reason made a ton of sense: we leave no woman or man behind on our journey. We need to activate the entire organization in our ambition to grow and innovate. In this case, it meant that every aspect of IT would evolve to a digital products mindset with new roles, skills and operating models. Product orientation and ownership was the ambition I set for both consumer and enterprise systems. They have different starting points, but everything would be digital, not just the shiny consumer things. 

The emergence of this role is the logical progression of bringing the software and systems under the remit of a single leader—to raise the bar on everything.

What advice do you have for CDOs who are adding IT, or to CIOs who are adding digital to their scope?

A traditional CIO should surround themselves with digital product experts from tech companies, ideally. It’s a good way to upskill on well-established aspects of product management—test to learn, prototyping, user research, roadmapping and data science. This CIO should ensure their product managers are not “order takers” from business units but instead real “product owners” who own or co-own the voice of the customer.

You can’t be a great product manager unless you start and end with the customer, and have a vision for what that looks like. Over the last 10 years, many traditional companies have re-labeled “IT managers” as “product managers” but it’s an entirely different mindset, contribution and skill set. CIOs adding digital to their scope should embrace this brave new world, and be ready to spend time on cultural transformation.

When it comes to a CDO who comes from fast-moving environments, be prepared to spend time on traditional IT and legacy systems in your organization. That may hold the biggest unlocks for the company over the long term. For example, you’ll have to figure out what to insource versus continuing to rely on from third parties, how to modernize the tech stack with API’s and service layers, address cyber vulnerabilities and drive better reliability and resilience in performance.

Over a period of two to three years, you can help place the organization solidly on the right path. One thing that helped me tremendously as I took on the role of both CDO and CIO at Volvo was talent spotting. We had pent up interest in shaking up IT from change agents who’d been in the company a long time. They needed the permission and support to be put in motion. I would say this group deserves much of the credit for any transformation Volvo has experienced on the journey from IT to enterprise digital.

How do you foster a unifying culture when bringing together digital and IT under one roof?

First, I’ve talked about crafting the right mental model. For example, “consumer digital” and “enterprise digital” instead of referring to “digital” and “IT.”  Next, set a common ambition, recognizing the pace will be different. It’s very possible for consumer and enterprise systems to live on a modern tech stack but the timelines will be very different. Third, spend time on both components. My advice is to “love each of your children equally.” Bring curiosity and a learning orientation to whatever problems are there to be solved. 

It’s challenging to excel at both ends—pushing the new frontier of innovation and sorting through the messy reality of legacy technology. Strong CDIOs see potential for impact on both ends. 

How does a CIO, CDO or CDIO avoid the trap of being viewed as limited to execution of ideas versus a true partner in the strategy?

Avoid this trap by bringing your full acumen to the table across business, customer, operational and technology matters—especially at the exploration stage of an idea. Don’t be shy to surface the important questions. Leading with questions is a very neutral way to influence with great impact. A high performing organization will value input about the right questions to explore, before teams go too far on an idea. Keep teams accountable to these key questions, the quality of the answers and how answers connect to recommendations. Focus your role on these contributions as that is what senior leaders should be doing.

How can these leaders establish ways of working to ensure partnership and co-creation in the day-to-day collaboration?  

A strategic initiative in a company will typically have co-sponsorship. If you’re one of the sponsors, it’s important to discuss the method for the collaboration. How will the exploration work? How will the unknowns and key questions be sourced? Who will be part of that process? Will the sponsors validate the right question list is developed before the working team proceeds with deep dives? When answers are developed, who will review them to begin to draw conclusions? How will alignment occur once recommendations are developed and how do sponsors ensure they stem from a high-quality exploration of the matters?

Spend time laying out these steps. In my book, I share a workflow for problem solving that ensures we bring out the collective intelligence of the organization, strip away silos and avoid blind spots. All while moving quickly. It’s critical to define the collaboration because that determines the speed and quality of moving from ideas to actions.

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