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Harvard's Chief Digital Officer: 10 Digital Best Practices

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Having had many phenomenal CIO and CMO guests on our CXOTalk show, it was an absolute delight to welcome our first Chief Digital Officer (CDO) guest, Perry Hewitt of Harvard University. In her role as CDO for the past 3 years, Hewitt is charged with Harvard University's efforts to develop a comprehensive strategy for digital communications and engagement, as well as to establish best practices for content, multimedia and technology. This role puts her working right at the intersection of marketing, technology and content, giving her a truly unique perspective on the challenges of digital transformation.

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Perry Hewitt, Harvard CDO

Gartner reported that in 2011 there were just 75 people with the CDO title and in the last year there are over 500. Hewitt attributes the explosive growth to the Consumerization of IT and says that the heightening expectations that hit all the lines of business across industries were hugely transformative in creating that growth. "As everything starts to disrupt people feel a need to get a piece of digital and want to have someone tasked to think about the kinds of things that are changing quickly and to serve as both a catalyst and a link among the technology, marketing, communications and public affairs departments to drive change," said Hewitt.

As the first Ivy League CDO and one of the first CDOs in higher education, Hewitt draws on her background which includes both traditional business and marketing strategy, and expertise in digital and social innovation and management to offer practical advice to technology and marketing executives of all industries for how to navigate the ever-changing digital world.

10 Chief Digital Officer (CDO) Best Practices for Dealing with Digital Transformation:

1. Build a high-performance digital team - In a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog article, Hewitt gives the advice to hire omnivores, not vegans when sourcing talent to build a high-performance digital team. The analogy was used to communicate that having a varied background makes someone better equipped to lead in the digital world. Hewitt feels that while digital tactics can be taught, it's more important to shift to a mindset of digital experimentation. The tactics for meeting business goals and objectives will change, so you need people who are comfortable with being uncomfortable.

2. Digital should be everyone's job - Digital transformation is a desired and shared vision of an outcome that can be achieved through a series of projects or combination of initiatives. "There needs to be a sense of where you are trying to go with this and how you will get there - as well as a vision of what fundamental change you want to make and how digital transformation can help deliver it," says Hewitt. In making digital part of everyone's job, Hewitt says there are two types of training models which she thinks of as a stairwell, in order to get up you have to phase in both having a specific initiative and teaching people (like how to use social media or email best practices) and throwing people into a project and having them work together to figure it out as they go.

3. Don't do digital for the sake of digital - Hewitt warns that the biggest mistake you can make is doing digital for digital sake. CDOs need to listen and engage with senior stake holders to understand what the drivers are and stay focused on the business objectives. "The key objectives and goals are wholly set and our job is to figure out how digital impedes or advances those goals and think of new ways we can use digital to support the organization," says Hewitt.
At Harvard, one significant transformation was thinking about institutional social media. When Hewitt came on-board in 2009 there was no institutional embrace. Leadership recognized the opportunity to make Harvard relatable and relevant through digital and social technology. They got there through the combined effort of an editorial strategy led by the communications aligned very closely with digital strategy in her office -- and reaching out to faculty and students as advisors.

4. Do fewer things better - When it comes to the process for choosing and expanding platforms Hewitt lives by the mantra "do fewer things better". Strive to find platforms where your audience is and focus your efforts there. "We don't rush to be first on a new platform, but instead put a lot of effort into doing it well and accountably. We wait until we think we have an audience that would care about what we have to say there and until we have the bandwidth to do it well," says Hewitt. This restrained approach is applied to not only how speedily they adopt new platforms but their participation in them as well.

5. Create an atmosphere of collaboration - There is a lot of talk about the relationship between the CDO and CIO. Hewitt says this relationship depends on the organization, but in any organization without trust and partnership you are in a tough spot. Managing to shared goals can be a win, as can matrixed reporting of cross-functional teams. Hewitt recalls a favorite saying of one of her colleagues, "There is nothing that prompts collaboration more than an exchange of hostages." When you have people working side by side on cross-functional teams, they better understand each other's challenges and capabilities -and this can result in improved collaboration.

6. Bake data-informed thinking into the culture - Hewitt writes in a blog that when managing a digital team one of the top five mistakes to avoid is not baking data-informed thinking into the culture. Because digital is so quantitative, finding people steeped in quantitative thinking is vital. Teams need to understand what to measure, and then how they will use that measurement to optimize. "The rise of analytics as a discipline is huge. I think that CDOs may fade into the background as capabilities become more baked into the organization and the next rise after the fall of the CDO role with be the Chief Analytics officer," says Hewitt.

Hewitt thinks that the best thing about digital is that you can measure everything and the worse thing about digital is that you can measure everything. The huge challenge is that people will drown themselves in data and get so obsessed with the numbers for numbers' sake. You need to be driven by mission, not solely bynumbers. It is very important to be able to define what is actionable, what you take action on and how you can begin to infer trends as they happen.

7. Think from the outside-in - For any executive tasked with digital transformation, Hewitt advises to think from the outside-in and from the consumer experience and to look at what is the combination of user experience and analytics that will drive to the consumer facing strategy. She suggests finding two or three projects to start with that can be chunked off in manageable chunks so progress can be shown, and then moving forward from there. The biggest thing is not underselling the degree to what people's expectations are.

8. Sometimes it's better to beg for forgiveness then ask permission - In a fast-moving digital environments, not all initiatives are well suited to traditional management decision-making processes. Having some early successes helps and rather than trying to get consensus on whether you should launch platform X, sometimes it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Her advice is to launch two or three things knowing that some may fail, but some may succeed. Innovative organizations view failure as part of the learning process.

Executives charged with leading the digital transformation need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in a world where there's not a single, definitive right answer for, say, the perfect mobile strategy. It's a matter of launch, learn, refine, re-launch. By making an effort and being able to say here is what went well and what went poorly will allow you to gain credibility to further your digital initiatives.

9. Get experimental and analytical - Organizations have this idea that there is a holy grail; a right
answer for how to do digital. Hewitt says for those that "got it right" you didn't see the hours of practice swings and two strikes before they got the hit. "It's really important to get experimental and get analytical," says Hewitt who recommends trying something out of the gate, a small initiative that will allow ways to dive into something and experiment and measure immediately. While planning is important, organizations need to think about it in shorter cycles and measuring and iterating in shorter cycles.

10. Management needs to live digital - With digital, it is especially important for senior leadership to live it. Managers need to be hands-on and focus on seeing the ways that people in their organization are using technology. It is also important to have an ongoing user experience discipline to understand how people are consuming what you are creating so you can optimize around those experiences.

Perry Hewitt concluded by reminding us that the essence of success is "collaboration, partnerships, being willing to live it a little, and work with smart people who are willing to bring it along."

You can watch the full interview with Perry Hewitt here. Please join me and Michael Krigsman every Friday at 3PM EST as we host CXOTalk - connecting with thought leaders and innovative executives who are pushing the boundaries within their companies and their fields.

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