by Bob Violino

CIO vs. CTO: Chief collaborators in tech

Sep 21, 202110 mins
CIOCTOIT Leadership

The line between CIO and CTO roles is increasingly blurring. Here's how to these roles traditional differentiate, how they are converging, and how they can work together to create business value.

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Most roles and responsibilities in the C-suite are fairly distinct and well defined: CFOs are responsible for all financial operations; COOs oversee daily operations; and CEOs manage the entire enterprise, for example.

With CIOs and CTOs, however, roles and responsibilities can sometimes get blurred. The fact that technology and how organizations use it changes so rapidly doesn’t help matters. Nevertheless, many enterprises have both a CIO and a CTO, and it’s important that the two work in harmony in order to maximize the benefits of technology.

CIO vs. CTO: Defining tech chief roles

The day-to-day responsibilities of the CIO and CTO might overlap depending on the organization and how it’s structured. But in most cases, it’s the CIO who oversees internal IT and its strategic value to the business, while the CTO stays on top of emerging technologies and creates policies and procedures that leverage technology to improve products and services delivered to customers.

“I see the CIO role as the bigger picture role, in particular with aligning IT and business strategies,” says James Rinaldi, chief IT advisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory research and development center. “The CIO has overall responsibility for automation, process modernization, and data architecture. The CTO role is most effective at evaluating emerging technologies and their adoption into the company. The CTO evaluates trends as well and compares with what others are doing.”

A CTO is typically focused on “creating great experiences and offerings for the customers and partners of an organization,” says Vishal Gupta, who serves as both CTO and CIO — as well as senior vice president of connected technology — at printer and imaging products maker Lexmark.

“To do this, they need to effectively partner with sales teams to give them access to strategic customers and partners and then work collaboratively with these customers and partners to create new innovations for tomorrow,” Gupta says. “A typical day [for the CTO] is focused on collaborating with four key stakeholders: marketing and sales, customers and partners, technology teams, and the external ecosystem.”

In addition to these stakeholders, CTOs need to help their organizations build an “innovation roadmap to transform their organization, so they will also need to partner with executives in various lines of business as well as their board and form strategic partnerships with other CTOs in the industry and key vendors,” Gupta says.

CIOs, on the other hand, “are focused on what’s happening today and enable the experience and automation for their employees,” Gupta says. “Both roles require a deep understanding of technology and how it can be used to create desirable outcomes for their organizations, and both are responsible for the experience of their stakeholders. They can also overlap in that they will both need technology talent and they will both need capabilities like design thinking to create great experiences.”

“The CIO is usually more inward-facing when it comes to the business, while a CTO is more technology, architecture, engineering, and product-facing,” says Ash Athawale, senior managing director for the executive search practice group at Robert Half. “The CIO will set the vision and will partner with the CTO to deliver on that vision. The overlap is on the strategy and product landscape, as well as with client deliverables.”

In many organizations, when CIOs feel the need to have a technologist on the team, that’s when they’ll seek out a CTO, Athawale says.

At organizations that have both a CIO and CTO, the CTO typically has more technical knowledge and expertise, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). When a company does not have a CIO, it’s the CTO who determines the overall technology strategy, the BLS says.

“In a sense, a CIO is a lot about operational leadership,” says Ozgur Aksakal, president of the Global CTO Forum, an independent, global organization for technology professionals. “The closest person to the CIO in an organization would be the COO. Their goal is to operate the company efficiently.”

On the other hand, “a CTO role is much more about creating revenue for the organization,” Aksakal says. “What you expect from a CTO is to develop competitive advantages that will differentiate you in the market. You don’t see the CTO as a cost center. It is a profit center. The CTO works with product development, marketing, engineering, [and] sales to grow the company.”

CTOs can thrive in market segments such as financial technology (FinTech), insurance technology (InsurTech), legal technology (LegalTech), and others, where the focus is mainly on developing tools to enhance operations in these sectors.

“All these fields like FinTech are about creating innovation and products by scaling technology,” Aksakal says. “Look at the most disruptive companies in any industry. They are all driven by technology. And when you think of the person responsible for that technology, you think of the CTO.”

Increased synergy between CIO and CTO roles

The CIO and CTO titles are becoming more interchangeable than ever, says Craig Stephenson, managing director of the North America Technology Officers Practice at organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry.

“We see scenarios when companies convey transformational change through a title change,” Stephenson says. “In some cases, [the] CTO may remain focused on infrastructure, in others we may also see CTO be the more strategic leader of the technology function. To add to the complexity and confusion, we are now seeing the title of chief digital information officer or chief digital technology officer.”

The CIO-CTO relationship has become much more synergistic over the past few years, Gupta says. “As a result, like my current role at Lexmark, it’s more common to see CITOs — people who hold both roles,” he says. In looking to create a new level of information transparency across the company, Lexmark found it was helpful to merge its IT and software research and development groups under one leader, which is why it combined the roles, he says.

“We wanted to create a set of shared capabilities like design thinking and data science and cloud platforms that could be leveraged by both the functions to accelerate the outcomes,” Gupta says.

Digital transformation is also helping to converge these roles, Gupta says, because companies often cannot roll out new solutions using technology such as the internet of things (IoT), cloud, and artificial intelligence (AI) without leveraging them internally to understand how they work and the benefits and challenges they bring.

“Like CTOs, CIOs must now continually look at what’s next to keep their organizations resilient and future-proofed against whatever challenges tomorrow may bring,” Gupta says.

CIO-CTO collaboration

Experts agree that it makes sense for CIOs and CTOs to work together whenever possible to maximize the benefits of technology for the organization.

These executives “can best work together by understanding their differences and balancing their strengths,” says Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO at software company Nutanix.

CTOs are technical engineers — they use technology to create products and capabilities, Pfeiffer says. “They are builders, and their teams run best when team members are productive and unrestricted. CIOs are operational engineers — they use technology to deliver business services and enable employee productivity. They are operators, and their teams run best when team members are efficient and effective. CIOs and CTOs can connect and collaborate around their shared goal of employee productivity, while each bringing unique strengths to bear on a shared corporate mission of business enablement through great products and great systems.”

Organizations can take several steps to foster a strong relationship between their CIOs and CTOs. One is to keep the lines of communication open. “To be successful, the CIOs, CTOs, and their teams must regularly meet to build trust and a deeper understanding of what the other side is looking to achieve,” Gupta says. “Having open, transparent communication or common town halls will help both the organizations to develop more empathy and collaboration with each other.”

Rinaldi, who says the relationship between the two roles has evolved to one of mutual trust where the CIO can count on the CTO to align technology opportunities to CIO plans, thinks these executives should frequently compare benchmarks and view trends to see what is most effective for the company.

“IT innovation efforts are strengthened if the CTO has great communications skills,” Rinaldi says. “Often the CTO can do prototypes and work with business units to discover new approaches for the business. This helps the overall IT organization stay relevant.”

Another good practice is to share knowledge whenever possible. “If your organization is having a specific challenge, such as scaling a particular project, it’s likely that your [internal] customers will too,” Gupta says. “By combining your knowledge and working together on addressing issues, it’s more likely both teams will benefit. At Lexmark, we have pooled our technology learning paths for both of these groups in areas like cloud and AI.”

To avoid turf battles, the IT and CTO teams should aim to find common ground.

“It’s natural that each part of the organization will have a different way of addressing challenges, given their respective roles,” Gupta says. “But there are ways to help both sides come to an agreement.”

For example, Lexmark has worked to break down data silos and make data accessible to everyone in the organization by creating a common data lake. “As a result, we’ll let the data inform our decisions, which has helped to minimize conflict and build mutual confidence in the approach,” Gupta says. “Another area of common ground could be recruiting and developing technology talent. We have recently leveraged in our IT group the college recruiting relationships that were built by the technology team.”

Both executives should aim to remove points of friction by having a good governance over IT decisions and technology investments, Rinaldi says. “The CIO and CTO should not be a competitive relationship, and can benefit each other as a partnership,” he says.

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