Blog Post

It’s Time to Rethink the Role of the COO

June 18, 2020

Our CEO and Founder David Holme weighs in on why it’s time to end the 3 P’s of COO responsibility and make the role more relevant for this digital era.

In this age of disruption, it’s time to rethink the role of the COO. I think the term is dated and jaded, and often, misconstrued.

The reason for this is that it’s always been such a challenging role to define. Is it about operations and efficiency, or is it about playing number two to the CEO?  In some organizations, it’s about all aspects of the business – sales, marketing, research, development, and manufacturing. There is no single consistent description of what the job consists of and the COO can rise from anywhere within an organization.

Back in 2006, HBR penned a defining article and research on the seven types of COO – which has been the backbone for many COO roles since. But almost 15 years later and having been through a global pandemic which will redefine so many roles, I think now is the ideal time to rewrite the COO job description.

The problem is that while the COO role is to look primarily at efficiency and predictive response analysis, many COOs are stuck with staff issues and “property, paperclips and pencil sharpener” issues (I call it the 3 P’s). This is a waste and has been since the role was introduced in the late 1990s. And that isn’t a criticism, it’s merely an observation that large areas of the industry are missing a trick.

And it turns out I’m not the only one who thinks this. According to a survey called The Volatility Report by Crist Kolder Associates, there has been a steady decline in the role of the COO from 2000-2019. The survey states a decline from 48% of US companies having a COO down to 34.1% in 2019. Is this the sound of the death knell for the role of COO?

Maybe the bell hasn’t rung just yet, but it is time for a change. In reimagining this role as a CEO, I have a clear vision. It’s based upon the reality that digitisation has had a Class A shot in the arm. Thankfully, because this is long overdue. But what does that mean on a practical level and for the reimagined COO role?

Most organizations have multiple systems – ranging from the new transformational ones through to the outdated and cumbersome. They span the business, from HR, to finance, sales, to procurement, and legal “operations.” However, few, if any, engage with each other digitally and almost all of them don’t engage with more than one data source or permutations of data. Even if they do share data, the integration is usually half-hearted and narrow in its approach.

Data lakes aren’t a new concept, and many organizations are already reaping the benefits. But for many in the legal sector, they see the concept, and then quickly decide that it sounds too hard or too expensive. This is a myth; it is neither. By pooling the data from all of your systems into a data lake you can start to democratize your data (i.e.; make it available to everyone), mine, and analyse that data for real business value.

I believe that creating a data lake, data management, and optimization is the future. And this should be the responsibility of the COO. The COO is there to prevent your data lake from turning into a data swamp. The role is ideally suited to having control and oversight across the data and the information that travels around your business which is currently being ignored and providing little if any value.

In fact, I would ditch COO for DPI – Digital Platform Integration Officer – add a chief if you want. Given the ubiquity of digitalization and the essential role that data plays in every single aspect of business, the DPI’s sole objective should be to answer business-critical questions using company-wide data translated into information, translated into actionable intelligence.

What do you think about reinventing the COO and leaving the three “P” s to others with the right skill set?  It would be great to hear your thoughts.  Feel free to email me directly or connect with me on LinkedIn. Be well.