CIO vs. CTO

Don’t wrestle over tasking, there is plenty of responsibility to go around

Count me among the many who have been confused at times by what it really means to be CIO vs. CTO. Both jobs are generally technology oriented, both include responsibility for the delivery of technology to the business, and both jobs require advanced leadership and communication skills. Let me say up front that there is no real agreement with regard to the specific responsibilities of each role. Some delineate the role with regard to the major challenges they attempt to solve, i.e. either inward facing or externally facing. This isn’t a valuable distinction because it doesn’t lend itself to the role clarity necessary to handle the problems that come with leading an IT organization. In fact, there are no hard and fast rules with regard to responsibilities, or even to who reports to whom. Some technology-focused organizations have CIOs reporting to CTOs, as opposed to CTOs reporting to CIOs; which is more common in traditional organizations. CTOs as the head of IT are “more common in technology-related organizations like computer manufacturers, value-added resellers, IT consultancies and financial services companies.”[1] In fact, the rise of the CTO position itself is a rather recent phenomenon that began to gain traction in the 1990s.  Having both roles is growing and my personal belief is that there is plenty of work to be shared at the top-tier of management within an IT organization. It makes sense to divide the work. I should be clear that what follows isn’t prescriptive. What works for one organization may not work for another and the needs of a large diversified conglomerate are going to be different from the needs of a tightly focused technology organization. I’m giving you my take on what the role should be, the skills required, and the impact they should have on the organization.

In organizations where the role of the CIO is that of the senior most Information Technology executive in the organization, the CIO often “serves as the company’s top technology infrastructure manager” [2] in contrast to the CTO, who “serves as the company’s top technology architect.”[3] Given the large role information technology has come to play in most organizations, technology infrastructure is business critical. The CIO therefore plays a primary role in supporting and in some cases driving the day-to-day business operations of the organization. This is by nature a risk averse and conservative role that is focused on ensuring that today’s work gets done, without necessarily an over emphasis on tomorrow. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be looking forward as a CIO; it simply recognizes that if you don’t make it through today you won’t be around to see the future. The criticality of IT and its importance to the organization means that CIOs will be less focused on specific technologies or the “bits and bytes of the technology.” This is often reflected in the fact that many organizations will fill this role with a more “business-oriented” executive; focused on delivering overall business value and running the business of IT, but who may be less technology savvy or have grown less so over time.

The overwhelming focus of the CIO is on ensuring ongoing operations, mission critical systems and security. With regard to ongoing operations, the CIO’s direct responsibilities should include the ongoing support and management of all enterprise systems, help desks, service delivery, and portfolio and program management. The last two responsibilities I mention, that of program and portfolio management oversight, is an area that should be closely coordinated with the CTO and one I will discuss in detail in my discussion of the CTOs role.  That this is where I see real value in the balance in viewpoints; between the CIOs focus on today and ongoing business operations, and the CTOs view into tomorrow and the transformation of the business into an organization capable of meeting tomorrow’s challenges. As the primary IT business manager, a major focus of the CIO should also include the overarching management of the organizations portfolio management including ensuring the strategic alignment of technology with the strategy of the business, as well as overall responsibility for maintaining organizational standards with regard to best practice and technologies.

In contrast, the CTO should play a visionary role.   They should be looking for opportunities to transform the organization, be active in the management of the process of evaluating new technologies, and identifying ways to leverage technology to support the business. The CTO should maintain an active understanding of the most innovative solutions and best practices, and recommend implementation of those that will ensure the organization is prepared to meet the challenges of tomorrow. As a function of the role the CTO plays in monitoring best practices and technology, the CTO should also play a role in examining current business processes and evaluating them for opportunities for improvement, making recommendations, and influencing ongoing operational support. As the business evaluates new opportunities, requirements, or as the new systems are contemplated, the CTO should have responsibility for the development and implementation of solution architecture ensuring it meets business goals and objectives as well as certifying the technical merit of the deployed solution. The CTO may also have overall responsibility for engineering and be responsible for the development of business facing solutions including the R&D portfolio and the development through initial deployment of all engineering systems prior to O&M.

In contrast to the CIO, the role of the CTO is as the name suggests technology focused.  The moniker could just as easily be Chief Transformation Officer because of the critical role this executive should play in ensuring the organization is able to meet the challenges of tomorrow. However, in order to truly deliver a high performing organization, it is critical that these two executives collaborate in many areas. Two of the most critical of these areas are the project and investment portfolio. It is within these two specific portfolios that the fortunes of the organization will largely depend and only by working to balance the needs of the organization, now and in the future, will they be able to deliver a high level of performance over time. As the lead architect for the organization, it is the CTOs responsibility to make compelling arguments for change and illustrate opportunities to re-engineer business processes, leverage data on behalf of the organization, or identify systems for replacement. The CIO must then work with the CTO to balance the forces these transformational efforts will present to the ongoing business of the organization including: decisions on build vs. buy, operational risk, security, continuity of operations, and maintenance of financial responsibility. The degree to which these two executives can work together and rely on each other to both deliver within their swim lane and collaborate across these areas of responsibility, the better the end result for the organization as a whole. As I have said before there is certainly no lack of responsibility or work available at the top-tier of the IT organization. High performing organizations will have executives that leverage each others skills and talents in order to ensure their own efforts are successful and the objectives of the organization as a whole are met.


[1] http://www.cio.com/article/31246/Whatever_Happened_to_the_CTO_Role_

[2] http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/hiner/sanity-check-whats-the-difference-between-cio-and-cto/742

[3] http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/hiner/sanity-check-whats-the-difference-between-cio-and-cto/742

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One thought on “CIO vs. CTO

  1. While reading this CIO vs. CTO blog, it struck me how similar this discussion is to my experiences in naval aviation.

    In the planning and execution of strike missions flown from aircraft carriers off the coast of some of our not-so-close international partners; a strike leader (CTO) would plan and execute based on the intentions of the Air Wing Commander — affectionately called the CAG (CIO). CAG in turn would be interpreting the intentions of the Battle Group Commander (COO) and his interpretation of the guidance provided by the Commander in Chief (CEO). Now, I have greatly reduced the chain of command for the sake of argument, but the point could be made that this is exactly what Josh is talking about in his article.

    The strike lead (acting like a CTO) must understand the capabilities of the varying aircraft, skills of the flight crew, limitations and capabilities of the weapons to be employed, and the overall coordination / timing of the strike package. While the CAG (acting as the CIO here) must weigh the ramifications of later missions, effect on the carrier’s operations, requirements of non-organic assets (USAF – as much as I hate to admit it) and to some extent the political repercussions of the mission itself. He must look to the future and decide if this investment (strike) is in the best interest of the Navy (company).

    Now I do not want to imply that IT investments are as critical and life threatening as hostile strike missions, but the planning and execution — and mostly delegation of authority — is similar and must be well coordinated for effective execution.

    Check 6 and FLY NAVY!

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