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CIO vs. CTO: Making the distinction between the two roles

In this Q&A, Gartner analyst Samantha Searle provides insight into the roles of the CIO and CTO when both exist within an organization.

An increasing number of organizations are creating CTO positions within their executive ranks, with the CIO and CTO expected to work jointly on the organization's digital agenda, according to Gartner, the technology research and advisory firm.

But having both positions within the C-suite requires organizational leaders to better differentiate the CIO vs. CTO, Gartner analyst Samantha Searle said. Although the two roles in the past were often used synonymously and were indeed often interchangeable titles, Searle said organizations cannot treat them as interchangeable positions in this digital age. Nor can organizations succeed with their digital agendas without assigning both roles their own distinct, yet complementary, job to do in the enterprise.

In this Q&A, Searle shares some of her insights into the CIO vs. CTO role and how they must be redefined to overcome the technical, methodical and cultural challenges that prevent progress in digital business transformation.

Editor's note: Responses were edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you summarize the role of CIO vs. CTO so we can understand the distinction?

Samantha Searle: What we're seeing is the CIO becoming a business strategist to help advise the CEO and the board on the future business model reinventions, and the CIO being a competent operationalist who is helping shape how the IT organization evolves in accordance with the organization's needs.

The CTO, on the other hand, is that strong technology visionary who is taking accountability for how the organization can wield and leverage emerging technologies and drive new innovations from them and use them to deliver future digital products and services that are going to delight their customers.

Both roles have been in existence for decades now. What's new about the CIO vs. CTO?

Samantha Searle, analyst, GartnerSamantha Searle

Searle: We're seeing that as organizations transform to become a digital business, obviously technology is critical to executing that transformation. So CIOs are taking responsibility for the IT strategy and evolving the IT organization to, for example, take on bimodal and be more responsive.

But CIOs have got a lot on their plate, so organizations are increasingly appointing CTOs to be accountable to the overall technology strategy that's not just about modernizing the technology they have. We typically see, for example, CTOs monitoring and responding to the digital disruption of new and emerging technologies like AI, augmented reality, IoT and hybrid and edge computing.

When you're dealing in a constantly changing disruptive environment, timing is crucial and so it makes a lot of sense to have a CTO who has taken responsibility for overseeing how the technology strategy should evolve in response to how the business strategy model is changing -- and also doing things like figuring out how you will apply these technologies in the organization.

Our CTO survey showed that 59% of CTOs are fully dedicated to leading technology innovation efforts within their organization and in response to that, we're seeing that the CIO is really running the IT organization and evolving the processes and culture.

What else will fall to a CTO when there is both a CIO and CTO position in an organization?

Searle: The CTO is figuring out how to bring new capabilities on board, what technologies will be needed and what the architecture and infrastructure, and even what the security and data implications can be, and working with the CIO to achieve it. And we're also seeing the CTOs leading up teams of software engineers who are figuring out, for example, how to design algorithms to better understand customer needs or come up with new digital platform services. That's another way in which we're seeing the CIO and CTO partner up to deliver digital business transformation.

According to your own firm's research, more than half of CTOs think their role is clearly differentiated from the CIO role. Does that mean that nearly half of CTOs don't see any differentiation of the CIO vs. CTO?

Searle: No, it's more subtle than that. We asked the respondents if they would find that to always be true or sometimes be true or not true at all. So 57% said their role is always clearly differentiated from the CIO, 32% said sometimes and 11% said never. Here's what I think those respondents are saying: A lot of organizations are in a lot of flux. People are transitioning from roles, and it's quite likely that those who say it's sometimes true are still figuring out how the CTO role will differentiate from the CIO, but they're not quite there yet. And the 11% would be the laggards that haven't been able to make that distinction yet.

What percentage of organizations have implemented both positions?

Searle: It's something that we're certainly looking at. It's very hard to pin it down to a number, but it seems to be an increasingly common scenario.

Who's pushing for both roles within an organization?

Searle: Often, it can be the CIO or the board seeing what's going on in their industry, seeing how the digital giants like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook and others are branching out into other industries and seeing how that's happening. They're seeing that these companies, because of the strong technology foundation they have built upon, are inventing new business models and new digital product lines. They're seeing this and realizing they need to have that important focus and accountability for how they're using new technologies themselves within their organizations.

The CIO is sometimes driving this?

Searle: Yes, sometimes it comes from the CIO or someone at that level seeing everything the organization needs to do to deliver on digital business and realizing that they don't have the right setup and they need to have a traditional role to partner with a CTO to really succeed.

Where are these new CTOs coming from?

Searle: People at the board level and the CEO level are headhunting people who have been a CTO at a vendor, people who have been responsible for a business model transformation or launching a new digital product line so they can bring that expertise in. That is core to not just succeeding but really thriving through digital disruption -- having someone at this executive level responsible for figuring out the overall business technology strategy and bringing in these new emerging technologies because they're going to make a difference as to whether you have a competitive advantage, whether you're able to make the first move in your industry and whether you're able to survive.

Where do you see CTOs in conjunction with CIOs most often?

Searle: We see the role most predominantly in financial services, manufacturing, media and communications, retail, healthcare and services. You do see it in transportation and utilities as well. We're also seeing more of an uptake in logistics as we're looking to self-driving vehicles.

After years of hearing about the need to be innovative, do CIOs feel shut out as more organizations bring on CTOs? When it comes to the CIO vs. CTO, will CIOs be pushed aside?

Searle: If you look at our CIO survey, we see their increased involvement in business strategy, leveraging what they've done historically to support the different business functions. So, we're certainly still seeing them get more involvement at that table.

Now, I think there's always going to be some examples of CIOs -- and it can happen to CTOs as well -- where if they haven't managed to demonstrate business value consistently over the years, if they haven't gotten out of that role of order-taker, then they'll be at risk. But you've got other instances where they've managed to evolve. We're seeing more CIOs have a seat at the table, and we've also got examples of CIO and CTO partnerships being set up to drive successful business transformation together.

How do they work together and complement each other's role versus getting into a turf war?

Searle: By having a clear understanding of what the implications of the business strategy model are, understanding and recognizing their own individual strengths and how they can complement each other, and having those positive relationships where they're working toward a common goal and not one person trying to take out the other.

Of course, it depends on the dynamics of personalities involved. One of the things I've emphasized in our research is that [organizations] want to look for people who don't just have the technical skills but have certain behavioral competencies like emotional intelligence, coaching, being clear communicators, good listeners -- [all of which] will help minimize misunderstanding. They have to have the right kind of business acumen as well, so they can gain an understanding of the wider impact of what they're doing with the technology, not just in how it supports employees getting the work done but also how it affects customer or citizen or patient experience.

If an organization has people who have those kinds of abilities, then they're better able to figure out how to constructively work together and have a more productive partnership.

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