The Chief Digital Officer And Governance Of the School Digital Ecosystem


By Mal Lee

All of the schools studied that have normalised the whole-school use of digital technology and which are developing increasingly higher order, digitally based school ecosystems have all had an astute principal to lead the way and the services of what is, in essence, a chief digital officer (CDO).

The same is to be found in the transformation of the digital masters of the business world (Westerman et al, 2014). In all, the organisation’s digital transformation has been skilfully shaped by a CEO working closely with a chief digital officer charged with converting the leader’s digital vision into a working reality.

Indeed, a 2014 McKinsey Consulting study observed, “Leadership is the most decisive factor for a digital program’s success or failure. Increasing C-level involvement is a positive sign, and the creation of a CDO role seems to be a leading indicator for increasing the speed of advancement (McKinsey, 2014).”

It is little wonder that businesses are clamouring to secure the services of CDOs capable of supporting the CEO in orchestrating the desired ongoing digital transformation.

Few associated with schools have yet to grasp the same imperative exists for all schools. If schools are to undergo the desired digital evolution and shape a more productive, digitally based school ecosystem, they too will need that role to be played.

In the pathfinder schools, the CDO role has been played by all manner of positions – by deputy principals, e-Learning coordinators, technology coordinators, CIOs and, in several instances, by several staff working closely together. The actual title does not matter. What is critical is having a senior staff member who shares the principal’s digital vision and macro understanding of the workings of the school, with a strong awareness of digital, and who is able to work collaboratively with an empowered staff in providing the apposite tightly integrated digital platform.

It requires an appreciation of the school’s shaping educational vision, the kind of digitally based ecosystem and school culture that will best realise that vision and the facility to provide the school community the digital ecosystem. It most assuredly does not require an ‘ICT expert’ who unilaterally decides what technology all in the school will use.

Critically, it needs a visionary educator who is able to collaborate with digitally empowered staff, students and parents to ensure that all are provided with the opportunity to fly with digital technology; and can simultaneously govern the school’s use of digital technology and ensure multiple systems and offerings are appropriately integrated and refreshed.

Behind the working website discussed in a previous article in Security Solutions is an extensive, ever-evolving, tightly integrated digital ecosystem that provides the platform upon which the school operates and grows, and which needs to be thoughtfully designed, shaped, maintained and refined. Without it, the digital school cannot operate, let alone grow.

Shaping that digital ecosystem entails a skilful balancing act, accommodating the seeming paradox of fostering a school-wide culture of change, where teachers are empowered to take risks and where there will inevitably be uncertainty, mess and at times seeming chaos, while simultaneously shaping an integrated, highly efficient and effective digital ecosystem able to continually deliver the desired schooling.

The Chief Digital Officer

The concept of the CDO, even within the business world, is a relatively recent one, but it is already viewed globally as being critical to the digital transformation of organisations (; Solis et al, 2014; McKinsey, 2014).

Westerman, McAfee and Bonnet (2014), in their seminal study of the corporate digital masters, concluded, “The CDO’s job is to turn cacophony into a symphony. He or she creates a unifying digital vision, energises the company around digital possibilities, coordinates digital activities, and sometimes provides critical tools or resources.”

Chan Suh, a CDO writing in Wired, observed, “Almost by definition, the CDO must be a bit of a free thinker, willing to experiment, fail and move on. They embrace data-based experimentation, adapt quickly and make iterative decisions…CDOs need to be able to move nimbly in all parts of the corporation, in terms of both departments and functions: digital integration impacts employees, customers and the whole portfolio of products. That means they need to speak multiple business languages and simplify what can seem like insanely complicated technology. But, above all, the job requires being persuasive, adaptable and visionary (”

The CDO is a very well recompensed, high-level executive position with ultimate responsibility for every facet of the organisation’s digital ecosystem. While the demands within the school will not be as great as in a multinational organisation, the nature and standing of the role to be played remains basically the same.

Relationship with the Principal, the CEO

In all the aforementioned literature and within the pathfinder schools studied, there is a vital close working relationship between the head of the organisation and the CDO. It stands to reason. The CDO, or whatever title they actually carry, has the responsibility for implementing the CEO’s digital vision for the organisation.

Whether it is a school or business, both people need to work closely as they shape the organisation’s ongoing digital transformation and take the organisation into unchartered waters.

Governance of the School’s Digital Ecosystem

As schools move to a digital operational base and develop mature, higher order, more integrated ecosystems, it becomes increasingly important for each to appropriately ‘govern’ and to shape the growth of the school’s digital ecosystem.

This shaping, maintaining and strengthening of an ecology that fosters ongoing school evolution and enhancement, and that allows the school to operate on the ‘edge of chaos’ as Pascale and his colleagues (2000) call it, is evermore important. It is very much an individual school responsibility, not that of external ICT experts who have no understanding of each school’s unique culture. Each school needs to determine its own mode of digital governance.

The strong impression – and it is only that – is that many of the pathfinders, contending as they are with rapid and accelerating organisational transformation, making increasing use of the students’ technologies and a plethora of cloud-based services, are fast approaching the point, in terms of productivity, of having to corral some of the digital services employed in the school and to seriously question if a laissez faire model of technology use is apt. This is particularly apparent in larger secondary schools where, on the one hand, the school is seeking to integrate its workings, while at the same time encouraging teachers to make best use of the emerging digital technology.

The Technology Committee

Traditionally in schools, business and the wider public sector, the technology or ICT committee was charged with that ‘governance’, but all too often operated as a stand-alone group implementing its own agenda.

What is now clear (Westerman et al, 2014) is that if schools want digital transformation, they should not give the job to a committee. According to Westerman, “Committees can make decisions, but they cannot drive change. Leaders do that.” Schools should seriously question the need for a technology committee.

Interestingly, committees were not used in any of the successful pathfinder schools. In all, the digital transformation was orchestrated by the principal and the CDO and the work was undertaken by the CDO, staff and others within the school’s community.

Finding a School CDO

Finding a staff member or even several staff to play the role of the school CDO is likely to be difficult. The kind of skill set described above is rare, even in the corporate world. One is looking in schools at experienced educators with a macro vision for schooling, with the desire to lead, to take risks and to embrace ongoing organisational evolution, with very strong digital acumen and with the people skills needed to take empowered professionals along on the evolutionary journey.

The pathfinder schools have, in some respects, been fortunate to have such personnel, but most of these schools have ‘grown’ or recruited these people over time, consciously continually enhancing their skill set.

It should not come as a surprise that many of the school CDOs are deputy or assistant principals who demonstrate many of the attributes needed to be the principal of a digital school. As far as the author is aware, none have been trained for the role by either their education authority or a tertiary education, but that said, there are pathfinder education authorities globally which are now assisting in the development of such personnel.

In 2016, most schools will likely have to grow their own CDO, or recruit and then grow the potential CDO. As indicated, it is a role that can be performed by a like-minded, driven pair of staff able to work closely. Indeed, such a pair could possibly include a non-educator provided that she/he had strong digital expertise and was able to address the organisation’s shaping vision.


It could be argued that the current situation in the pathfinder schools, where the CDO role is normalised and untitled, is the desired one. The key is that the role is performed successfully and naturally shapes the desired evolution and strengthens the school’s digital ecosystem.

In so saying, it might well be opportune in certain school situations, like in business, to use the appointment of a CDO to proclaim the school’s intention to use digital technologies to transform its operations. That is a call each school needs to make.

What, however, is that much clearer is that a school, in moving to a digital operational base and becoming increasingly reliant on a more sophisticated, powerful, integrated and productive digital ecosystem, will need apt processes to govern its operation and growth; processes that are appreciably a more sophisticated and effective way than the traditional ICT committee.

While the digital transformation business literature ( and the articles on CDOs will assist, schools do have a very different shaping purpose to corporations and need their own solution. Schools will need to address how the CDO role will be performed and identify an apt mode of governing the growth of the school’s digital ecosystem.

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Mal Lee
Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now, author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.

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