Whether you think pondering over IT leadership titles is primarily driven by self-aggrandisement or you believe appropriate role definition and nomenclature is an important and powerful aid to organisational change, there is no doubt that one role on the radar of CIO Connect members is that of the CTO - chief technical or technology officer.
In two recent weekly polls, 58% of CIO Connect members agreed there was a real need for such a position alongside that of the CIO, while only 39% said their organisation already had a CTO. This suggests the growth of the CTO role is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Unlike the concurrent debate around whether organisations should drop the term 'IT' from role and function titles entirely, which is largely about transforming perceptions, the CTO issue goes to the very heart of business governance and organisational structure.
In industries and organisations where IT innovation provides a crucial differentiator, and where the CIO comes from a business rather than a technical background, there may well be a need for a CTO or equivalent position. However, there is still confusion in some quarters over precisely what this role should entail.
Is it just another name for the IT operations director? Or is it the person who maps out the effect of technological change on the business itself, informing the work of the strategy director, helping the commercial director define new products and services and the chief operating officer identify new ways to use technology to drive productivity and quality?
To move beyond the confusion, we need to understand how the role developed historically. The CTO surfaced in US technology companies during the late 1980s, where IT innovation was absolutely core to business growth and R&D directors emerged from the labs to take their rightful place at the forefront of organisational strategy. But the title really took off in the latter half of the 1990s, as the dotcom boom spread and myriad tech-driven start-ups paraded their CTOs in front of the press and analysts as they competed for market-share and investment.
Veteran CTO and IT management theorist Roger D. Smith argues that companies need different types of CTO depending on their level of maturity. He writes: "Early stage companies require much more hands-on expertise with specific technologies. Mid-stage companies need a CTO who can focus on improving existing products and leading teams that can create replacements for those products. Industry-dominating companies need a CTO that can focus a vision of the future. This person must be able to find and codify opportunities ... influence the corporation to pursue this vision and keep the company on a path to successful innovation."
Smith goes on to note that the skill-sets needed by a CTO at each of these different stages vary enormously, meaning it is unlikely that the same person would be able to see a company through all the phases of its development. He identifies five distinct sets of CTO competencies for each phase of an organisation's maturity, ranging from 'genius' responsible for product innovation at the early stage to 'executive' charged with strategic vision for the mature, dominant organisation.
As well as confusion over the nature of the role, there are also differing opinions as to the appropriate level of seniority that such a position should be afforded. Some CTOs or their equivalents sit under CIOs, others work at the same level or even above them. What's appropriate will depend on both the nature of the business and the background, skills and personality of the current CIO.
It was interesting to read that a sizeable minority (42%) of CIO Connect members did not feel there was a need for a CTO to work alongside a CIO.
Some CIOs may be reluctant to relinquish ultimate responsibility for technology strategy in order to avoid being relegated to the mundane infrastructure and service management position infamously predicted for them by Nick Carr in his 2003 Harvard Business Review article “IT doesn’t matter”. Others are perhaps worried that the CTO title is too nebulous and wide-ranging to be truly meaningful, given its history among the technology vendors and dotcom boomers.
Ultimately, though, surely what's important about any IT leadership role isn’t what it’s called, but how it is defined and executed, and whether it meets the needs of our specific businesses.
The rise of the CTO is a reflection of the fact that technology innovation – or at least the innovative application of technology – is indeed becoming an important differentiator for many organisations beyond the technology sector. Industries such as retail and financial services may be ahead of the curve, but others will doubtless follow as global business grows ever faster and more competitive.
Nick Kirkland, is managing director of CIO Connect, the UK’s largest membership organisation for CIOs and their IT teams. More information is available here