CIO and CTO- Arif Harbott explains the difference

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CIO and CTO- Arif Harbott explains the difference

Technology leadership has become a lot more complicated as technology has become more important to gaining and keeping a competitive advantage in modern businesses.

A business used to have just a Chief Information Officer (CIO) but now there are many other roles that have come to prominence in the C-suite such as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Chief Digital Officer, and Chief Data Officer.

In this article, we will examine the differences between and CIO and a CTO. The first thing to point out is that there is no universally accepted definition of a CIO and CTO.

The roles differ by size of company, industry, and sector. Technology roles in the C-suite are perhaps the least well defined and least well understood of any senior role.

That being said, there are some trends that are emerging and this article is the result of practical experience, leading-edge research, and also the analysis of job descriptions across the industry.

The size of your company matters

In a small company, there is unlikely to be a split between the CIO and CTO roles, the responsibilities will be covered by one person.

However, as the company grows there is often a need to separate out the roles to ensure that both internal IT and customer-facing technology get the attention they deserve. That’s when things get complicated.

The added complication is that as the company grows the CTO and CIO positions can overlap and interact with other senior technology roles such as the Chief Digital Officer and Chief Data Officer.

What is the split between a CTO and CIO?

In companies with both a CTO and CIO the traditional split is that:

The CTO is more externally focused on technology propositions for customers. The CTO, as well as being an expert technologist, becomes the external face of the technology offering.

The CTO role can differ from company to company, but it usually includes everything from technology vision and strategy to architecture, innovation, software development, and product development for customer propositions.

CIOs, on the other hand, are more focused on the needs of internal business users. Aspects such as core operations systems, process automation, data, end-user computing. The CIO ensures the internal users get the best technology to run the business.

The position of CIO was born out of the IT department to be the leader of the business’s internal technology teams. It is the CIO’s role to keep business processes running efficiently so the company operations run smoothly.

Who is more senior? The CTO or the CIO?

There are no hard and fast rules, sometimes the CTO reports the CIO and sometimes visa versa. In some work environments, they are peers and both report to the CEO.

This is where the industry you are in plays a big part in this decision. If technology is a core part of the customer proposition e.g. technology-led companies, software companies, eCommerce, the CTO is usually the more senior role. If internal operations are the focus e.g. manufacturing, B2B businesses then the CIO is often more senior.

My personal view on this is that companies operate much more effectively when there is a single leader who is responsible for all of the technology, regardless of whether this is the CTO or CIO. There is often a lot of friction when the CTO and CIO are peers.

The trend seems to be that as technology becomes ever more important in customer propositions, it is the CTO, who is often the most senior technology executive. Regardless of who is the most senior, it is very important that one of the reports directly to the CEO.


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