Good-School-Gründerin Simone Ashoff © Julia Grudda

No need for CDOs, says Simone Ashoff

A "group of relevant players is all you need," says director of Hamburg's Good School

Chief Digital Officers (CDO) are sought after in the digital era and offer this much-vaunted, glimmer of hope. Yet, hardly anyone finds the right person. The answer is simpler: “A CDO is not required,” said Simone Ashoff, founder of the Good School in Hamburg.

Hamburg News: Simone, you advise companies not to hire the services of costly headhunters who search externally for CDOs, but to invest internally in the digital education of their own employees. Why do you think CDOs are superfluous?

Simone Ashoff: A CDO and a single person cannot transform a company. It takes a real management team – from CEO to HR, IT and marketing director – to drive the digitalisation of a company forward. Of course, someone else can co-ordinate the whole thing and organize co-ordination processes, etc. But that is more of a a “Digital Transformation Facilitator” or DTF.

I mean there are many ways to advance digital transformation. Using a CDO is just one of them. The budget for hiring, onboarding and salary will certainly amount to a mid six-figure amount in the first year. How do you benefit from that? You get someone who is highly committed to digitalisation, and a remainder that does business-as-usual because now someone else is tasked with the transformation. Two cultures now become more compatible than ever with each other. One (new, digital) has to “take along” the other (old, traditional), but cannot do so easily, of course.

Hamburg News: What, in your opinion, is the solution?

Simone Ashoff: We believe there is a better way to transform a company. Not faster and cheaper one, but a far more effective way. Namely, by enabling one’s own management team to think and act digitally.

Hamburg News: How can companies do this best?

Simone Ashoff: By turning their companies into learning organisations. By rethinking the working environment as a learning environment. Companies can develop learning programmes that go hand in hand with work projects and build up an external and internal network of experts for schools and staff. By establishing structures that make learning more consistent and not simply an exceptional event in the form of seminars or conferences. By learning to learn.

Hamburg News: But there are also various workshops, labs and other formats lasting several months where managers come together in a “digital biotope” with highly-paid keynote speakers and transformation experts in trendy open spaces. Is that a solution?

Simone Ashoff: That’s not bad. But it’s only part of the solution. The problem with any learning format is that if it is an isolated solution, it remains a solitary experience and changes hardly anything. If what has been tried out and learned in the fancy digital laboratory is to flourish and bear fruit, the company must do structural work. In my opinion, it is important to reformat the manager’s working environment into a highly productive learning environment. Corporate learning must become part of everyday business life.

Hamburg News: But CDOs are well able to push that ahead….

Simone Ashoff: The roles should be defined clearly. Many tasks are associated with a CDO e.g. learning, culture, business innovation, new work, digitalization of business processes, co-ordination of all digitalisation projects, corporate venturing, experimenting with the latest technologies. We have the impression that the role of the CDO has been invented as a universal remedy for digital transformation that relieves other members of the management team, including the CEO, of their responsibilities.

Hamburg News: Good School offers a learning module called “New Tech” as part of the Digital Transformation Club. What technological disruptions can be expected next? How does IT transformation work? Does that require technical know-how and another CDO?

Simone Ashoff: It’s the other way around. Technical know-how is not a requirement as you will receive the technical skills needed by all managers tasked with digital transformation in a company. And these are the HR, strategy, marketing and IT managers. They have to do this. Nobody’s going to do that for them.

Hamburg News: Simone, thank you very much for the interesting conversation.

Interview by: Karolin Köcher

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