It’s no secret that the pace of technological change has created as many challenges as it has opportunities.
As businesses continue to adjust to an unpredictable pandemic, unreliable supply chains and the unabated presence of cyberthreats, there are hopeful signs that a more collaborative relationship between CIOs and CTOs is helping companies meet growing technology demands.
Prior to the pandemic, rigid lines between the roles of CIO and CTO were already breaking down due to sweeping digital changes and growth in e-commerce, online banking and social media marketing.
The move to remote work, virtual meetings and online consumer services necessitated by the pandemic accelerated this trend, intensifying the need for collaboration among CIOs and CTOs. As a result, many CIOs have forged alliances with CTOs around enterprise-wide concerns, such as data privacy and IT security, and to facilitate large-scale technology upgrades, including the migration to cloud-based systems.
“The nature of work, and what we're all doing, and the problems we're trying to solve changes faster than it ever has,” said Workday CTO Jim Stratton. “In the last two years, it's changed a lot faster than any of us were expecting.”
Stratton, a technology strategist for Workday’s cloud-based enterprise management system, works closely with CIOs at large companies in fields like finance, healthcare, hospitality and manufacturing, as well as in the public sector. From his perspective, supportive CTO-CIO partnerships have been key to managing the speed and scope of changes in business technology and strategy.
“If you actually spend time in the room with these folks, you can see whether they’re collaborating or not,” said Stratton. “I definitely agree that companies that are succeeding and able to pivot, they have a very collaborative executive team.”
There is evidence to support Stratton’s observation. A recent report published by IBM’s Institute for Business Value (IBV) concluded companies and organizations with a high level of CIO-CTO collaboration demonstrate “substantial operating margin improvements.”
Technologically mature companies in the IBV study showed marginal revenue gains that were 2% higher than less-advanced enterprises. That number rose to 6% for companies with a higher level of collaboration between a CIO and a CTO.
The rise of the CTO
Traditionally, the CIO has been the C-suite executive responsible for internal technology strategy, including sourcing and resource deployment. In some organizations, the CIO was the only C-suite executive tasked with IT oversight.
That dynamic is changing. The growth in outward-facing technology products and services and the importance of web-based client and customer interfaces has made the CTO role integral to businesses and organizations throughout the economy.
Three-quarters of the organizations Gartner tracks have a CTO in addition to a CIO, according to Samantha Searle, a senior principal research analyst at Gartner.
“Every company is becoming a technology company in order to become a digital business,” she said. “Therefore, technology is becoming a strategic asset. You need someone, and it usually is a CTO, who is accountable for that.”
Most but not all of Workday’s clients have a CIO and a CTO, according to Stratton. The technology companies he works with are the most likely to have both. At companies that he describes as “more traditional in terms of their focus or structure,” that’s not the case.
“I don't see CTOs in those traditional businesses as often,” Stratton said. “But, frequently, I will talk with a VP of IT or someone similar who is, effectively, for what they do, in a CTO role.”
More CTOs, more collaboration
As the number of CTOs occupying leadership positions grows, CIOs are gaining potential allies who can take an active role in managing the technology side of business operations and strategy. With this alliance, comes a shift in roles and a change in the dynamic between CIOs and CTOs.
In a traditional organization alignment, CTOs sat outside of the C-suite and reported to CIOs. Searle describes a new paradigm in which the CIO and CTO, in partnership, report to the CEO.
“As things have moved to the cloud, and as cybersecurity, AI and data analytics capabilities have become more important, it has become less likely for the CTO to be the old-style CTO who reports to the CIO,” Searle said.
Anthony Johnson, CTO for the e-commerce startup Swiftline, pointed out via email that the old intranet/extranet model distinction is no longer applicable in the SaaS business.
“Security is moving towards zero trust networks, which assume configuration and control both inside the network, at the boundaries, and on the [bring your own device] laptops and phones of the organization," Johnson said. "To separate the two either makes the organization less secure or slow to build out software.”
At Swiftline, Johnson is the CTO in a structure that does not include a CIO. At the other end of that continuum are many of the organizations that Stratton works with, some of which have a CIO and multiple CTOs.
“I think there are roles and responsibilities across each of those titles and roles,” Stratton said. “But, at the end of the day, we're all trying to work together to solve business problems.”
Searle echoed that sentiment. “The bottom line is that a lot is expected of a single digital leader,” she said. “A lot of job descriptions today read almost like a wish list to find that superhuman person who can do everything, and that’s not always realistically achievable. So, what we are saying is that you need that partnership, not just externally but also within your organization.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Anthony Johnson's name.