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Why we may not have chief digital officers for long

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There's a new kid in the C-suite. Joining the chiefs in the corporate world are chief digital officers.

In existence for nearly a decade, CDOs have seen a twofold spike in their numbers since 2012. By the end of 2014 nearly 1,000 CDOs had been recognized worldwide, said David Mathison, CEO of the CDO Club, the world's largest network of chief digital and data officers.

Yet this growth may only be transitory, and as companies better adapt to digital innovations these corporate officers may vanish (almost) as quickly as they arrived.

A CDO's responsibilities can change depending on the type of the organization, but generally they are in charge of finding ways to connect with customers in the digital space, integrating functions like marketing, technology and innovation, said Atif Rafiq, CDO and senior vice president at McDonald's since October 2013.

But once a company is reconstructed to incorporate digital technology, the CDO role could become obsolete, Rafiq said.

"Working on digital is like drinking from the firehose, so, honestly, one doesn't think too far ahead in this space. Once a large, traditional company like McDonald's is reimagined around digital, this position may function in an entirely different way as it does now—but there is a lot of space between now and then," he said in an email.

Sree Sreenivasan is CDO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Prior to taking up this role in August 2013, Sreenivasan was CDO for Columbia University in 2012.

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With the current need that companies have for innovation and being digitally savvy, the position of a CDO is necessary but soon all executives and employees will become digitally equipped, thus eliminating this need, Sreenivasan said.

His job is to offer a digital museum experience to visitors.

"I tell people that my job is to tell a million-plus stories about a million-plus pieces of art to a billion-plus people," he said.

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The revenue question

Hiring CDOs could be one factor that has led to increased digital revenues for major companies like Gannett and BBC, Mathison said.

For example: BBC Worldwide's digital revenue rose from less than 3 percent to about 13 percent during the 2010 to 2014 term of CDO Daniel Heaf, according to drum.com. (For it's part, the BBC said its digital growth was a team effort, and that it no longer has a CDO.)

Gannett's adjusted fourth-quarter net income for 2014 rose 54 percent as its broadcasting and digital units generated higher sales and profits, USA Today reported. Gannett did not respond to requests for comment.

As far as salaries go, while CDOs may not be as well-paid as some of their executive peers, they're still handsomely rewarded.

The salaries for CDOs roughly fall in the broad $250,000 to $750,000 range, Mathison said, depending on the type of company.

While Rachel Haot, CDO for New York state could be earning nearly $125,000 annually, the CDO for an entire country could be making between $500,000 and $750,000, said Mathison. (The New York CDO office did not returns calls for comment.)

In the media industry, a CDO's salary could be between $300,000 and $750,000, whereas a banking-sector CDO could be earning more than $1 million annually, Mathison said

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Rafiq, who is responsible for overseeing the global digital strategy of McDonald's across its 36,000 outlets serving close to 69 million customers every day, said his biggest success was incorporating Apple Pay into the 14,000 U.S. locations of the world's largest restaurant chain.

Rafiq is also responsible for setting up a hub in San Francisco to pool new talent and remain close to the Silicon Valley.

"As a restaurant, we're working to bring new conveniences and fun to the millions of customers who interact with McDonald's every day. So you find us talking a lot about customer experience and … customer empowerment as people go through the journey of using McDonald's," Rafiq said.

Even though CDO is a "hot title" right now, Nigel Fenwick, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, said their role is to act as a catalyst and may eventually become a hybrid between the chief marketing officer and chief information officer.

Sreenivasan added "businesses have changed, technology has changed and society has changed so the old way of doing business doesn't work anymore. It's happening so quickly that there's a role for people like me right now but there won't always be a role for people like me."

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