CIO Connect: Do organisations need a CTO?

More than half of UK IT leaders see a real need for a chief technology officer (CTO). But is it just another name for the IT operations director?

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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."

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