The title issue revisited: CTO vs. CIO

Key question of the day: given the recognized ascendancy of business/IT alignment and business change management as a vital purview of the effective CIO/CTO, should senior technology executives decrease their emphasis on technology, and focus primarily on corporate strategy and change? Should the company just have one role (call it a CTO, perhaps) do all that technical stuff, and move the CIO role into that of predominantly business strategist?

Let me raise my hand for the Nays. That would be the pendulum swinging way too far in the opposite direction. The problem of business/IT alignment won’t be solved by ghetto-izing technology concerns, and/or pretending that an executive is really only part of the senior team if she/he has a mostly strategic orientation and little responsibility for technology. That’s called a backlash, and it’s bound to lead to trouble. Here’s why.

It’s long been pretty close to a received truth that a key success factor for IT is to forge deep alignment with the business.  And that’s been an elusive goal. Indeed, one CIO Magazine article from way back in 2004 referred to business/IT alignment as a “Holy Grail”.  More recently, a Forrester survey discovered that “only 15 percent of IT leaders declared themselves to be fully aligned with the business.”

I’ve posted myself, early and often, on myriad ways to push effectively for IT/business alignment. So I’m anything but a blind proponent for a technology-centric CIO/CTO.  But now let’s talk about the backlash I’m seeing, and use it to reemphasize my point from the last time I wrote directly about “CTO vs. CIO” on this blog: it’s not the title per se that matters, but that a company have a single, key, senior information technology executive who is tasked with shepherding information systems strategy, decisions, and ongoing projects company-wide. Note, however, that as I stated last time, “The important part is to recognize two conflicting truths: technology is all-important in many leading and bleeding-edge companies today; technology itself, however, cannot be the sole, or even the main, focus and purview of the senior technology executive.”  Elsewhere, I wrote that “It is absolutely critical that the CIO/CTO be the chief voice at the senior management table, when it comes to educating and advocating the judicious undertaking of “roof projects” when necessary.”

What I’m seeing recently, as I wade through countless magazine articles and books on IT management matters (let alone hundreds of tweets from colleagues on Twitter), is a movement towards deprecating the need for strong technology leadership at an executive level. If past IT executives have been overly focused on technology and not enough on business value, then the answer must be (per this backlash) that the IT executive should move away from focusing on technology, put that in the hands of others, and move instead toward business, innovation, and shepherding corporate change.  Specific examples of the backlash:

  • “There’s no “T” in CIO”. In Chris Potts’ loosely fictionalized (and in many ways excellent) narrative, “The CIO as a Corporate Strategist,” he has a CEO reflect as follows: “Maybe it’s the constant reference to technology that’s getting in the way of understanding what the CIO role is really all about. After all, CIO doesn’t even have the letter T in it.  What if we took technology away from the CIO and focused him uniquely on Business Leadership? What then could the CIO role do for us?”  Elsewhere in the same article, Chris writes that “in-house IT management has increasingly become about sourcing and supplier management. Maybe one day, [the CIO] speculated, the company’s sourcing people should do all of that instead.”
  • ‘There are no IT projects, only business projects,’ is the frequent imperative of many CIOs and IT leaders.”  A number of us had a raging debate on Twitter about this. While it’s certainly true that all projects must have business justification (e.g., revenue enhancement, strategic impact, cost saving, legal imperatives), there will of course always be projects that have little or no direct, short-term impact on the business stakeholders of the company, yet are critical to do.  See my recent post on “roof projects”.

The backlashers (to coin a word) are right in their emphasis on business strategy and change, and yet they are wrong: they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. My experience has taught me that technology management cannot be dismissed as purely a lower-level activity, with the senior executives in the company able to take a hands-off approach while they evolve their strategy.  In fact, the problem is that too often, technology management has been placed in the hands of people who had only a lower-level approach and perspective.  Doing that has resulted in exactly what you’d expect: a lower-level perspective. Hence the stereotype of the unresponsive, uncommunicative, difficult IT organization, often working on matters that aren’t congruent with the business needs of the company.  Or, conversely, IT has been “managed” by people who weren’t at all technology-oriented, who have then proved ineffective, open to vendor manipulation, staff disrespect, and a steadily increasing “herding cats” mentality on technology matters.

The answer is not to reject IT as an important purview of a senior-level executive (call that person a CIO or a CTO, as you wish) in a company.  The issue is getting a senior executive who will exercise the right balance between technology and business strategy. Downgrading “pure tech” matters to a non-senior executive leads to the same old rut: tech decisions made poorly, with tunnel vision.  Instead, the CIO needs to straddle a midpoint on the business/technology spectrum, not swing to one end or the other. You can’t have one person (say, the CIO) responsible for strategy and still another (say, the CTO) responsible for technology. It turns out that you need the combination: a senior executive who is part of the strategic definition for the company, and who can ensure that the day-to-day decisions in information technology will be made accordingly. In other words, companies need to recognize that business projects can fail equally through technology tunnel vision or through too little attention to core technology matters by executives who spend their time elsewhere on matters they deem more “strategic”.

In fact, if there is no (or the wrong kind of) executive in charge of technology, one sees effects such as the following:

  • technical and applications architecture tends to grow haphazardly, becoming increasingly inflexible and unwieldy;
  • no metrics are gathered, much less used for continuous improvement;
  • open season reigns for vendors, who then deal primarily with lower-level buyers who often lack the big picture financially and strategically;
  • the “dev guru” phenomenon appears, where the company is dependent on one or two individuals and there’s insufficient cross-training;
  • no delivery commitments are made—or commitments are made with no factual basis;
  • silos appear in Ops, QA, Dev, PM, often at cross-purposes with each other;
  • Multiple points of entry into IT abound for business folks. What gets worked on depends on personality, not corporate exigency;
  • little process improvement is considered or exercised;
  • “IT sourcing” groups emerge that become sheer order takers for stakeholders who’ve been swayed by a vendor demo.

For further examples, consider the points I made in a recent post, “Canaries in the coal mine: Why your IT department may be in worse shape than you think.”  To avoid these and other examples of IT failure, companies need to place at the helm of information technology an active, savvy executive, serving as a peer of the senior executives in the company, and they must look to that individual for leadership, guidance, and day-to-day influence.  Should that person have the title of CIO or CTO? That’s not the right question, because it doesn’t matter.

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  1. Peter, a good post, thanks. You correctly point out the apparent swinging of the pendulum on the title/role issue. My own sense is that many of the posts on this topic (along with much of material on best practices), tend to fall into binary, either/or extremes that are not in any way representative of the real world we live in. Those binary headlines garner page views but not much else. It’s not likely that a mature CIO would show up to the Board room promoting either of these extremes – rather they would judiciously calculate WHAT IS NEEDED for their company, at its level of maturity, considering the individuals involved (customers, C-team), where the staff is, etc. This is, after all, what the organization is paying for (pragmatic leadership), not blind obedience to whatever new leadership extreme is promoted in the trade rags that week…

  2. Interesting post. It seems as though there are many CTOs/CIOs who have this pendulum effect going on. While there are plenty that consistently fall in one “camp” or the other (CIO vs CTO), I imagine that most find themselves trying to strike the balance you speak of, but fall in to the trap of swinging from one side to the other. Instead of making decisions from a balanced perspective its more moving from a period of “strategy” based decisions to a period of “technology” based decisions.

  3. Should that person have the title of CIO or CTO?

    This is a valid question. Words matter. The fact that you had to revisit this issue based on observed trends is evidence.

    I am not sure why “strategy” is attached to “CIO”. The “I” stands for information which is transformed from data and translated to wisdom when “that person” does her/his job well. Allow me to use your words…

    CFO: “…a senior executive who is part of the strategic definition for the company, and who can ensure that the day-to-day decisions in…” “… will be made accordingly. ”

    CHRO: “… a senior executive who is part of the strategic definition for the company, and who can ensure that the day-to-day decisions in…” “… will be made accordingly. ”

    COO: “… a senior executive who is part of the strategic definition for the company, and who can ensure that the day-to-day decisions in…” “… will be made accordingly. ”

    I believe a person with balanced skill sets is key too. It is key for any C-level position. Let’s devise an acronym for the C-level information technology leader to be more succinct while realizing that words culminating to clear definitions or points matter.

    How about CITO? I am serious. I am not trying to be funny.

  4. Thanks for the comment, “hi”. I actually think the CTO/CIO is a different species of problem, titling-wise, from the COO, CFO, et al. The other execs you name tend to be already part of the strategic decision-maker body, with the frequent exception of the HR exec. And no one says, for example, that the CFO shouldn’t concern himself or herself with the specifics of the accounting system, and just set financial direction for the company. They expect that person to do both. It seems to me that only with IT does the dichotomy seem to arise: people tend to feel that the chief technology executive should be EITHER mainly strategic or purely tactical. And that dichotomy, that either/or mentality, is what I reject.

    I personally like the CBTO title that’s been proposed, since it emphasizes that the technology in question is of and for the Business.

  5. Great post, Peter. (I ended up here following your comment to Chris Curran’s post about an IT Czar.) My own outlook tends to be a bit skewed, not over the CIO/CTO debate per se, but because most of my professional work tends to deal with troubled IT projects, either as a consultant brought in to help review and get said projects back on track, or as an expert witness in lawsuits involving failed/troubled projects. As such, I tend to spend a lot of time looking at organizations that have some degree of dysfunctionality when it comes to IT. But then again, those may not be out of the normal distribution.

    If you’ll forgive me for quoting myself (and my co-author, Ruby Raley) from an article we wrote a few years ago:

    The bad news is that, unlike in football, the business and IT sides of a firm don’t always agree on what constitutes a ‘victory’ (even though both sides can usually agree on what a ‘loss’ is, at least in cases of total or significant project failure). Indeed, sometimes they cannot fully agree on what the game is.

    I think that’s at the heart of the same tension you’re talking about above. In the meantime, I’ve added you to my list of blogs to read regularly. 🙂 ..bruce..


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