Mimi Browning | CTOs ' Bringing back the IT edge

IT Strategy'commentary: A good chief technology officer can restore the IT edge CIOs used to have

Mimi Browning

When chief information officers rise to the level of executive management, they often lose the technology edge.

The daily demands of information technology operations overshadow their ability to apply the power of IT to achieve pioneering results. The benchmark for successful ' but increasingly tame ' IT professionals becomes process, not innovation.

Resource and acquisition managers and executives with extreme BlackBerry skills are now the darlings in CIO slots. IT experimentation is too often trumped by devotion to compliance and regulations.

Enter the chief technology officers. These uber-geeks, IT visionaries and friendly renegades play an essential role as catalysts to tackling tough, complex problems.

Years ago, I met my first CTO and, being in the CIO business, was aghast at his skills in circumventing established CIO rules, regulations and palace guards. Yet he was admired for his ability to create new, leading-edge IT capabilities which, had he followed routine government processes, would have taken years.

Whereas federal CIO roles are well-codified by the Clinger-Cohen Act, CTO roles are less clearly defined. Individual organizational requirements and cultures determine CTO roles. Thus, the role for a mainline agency CTO will differ from the role for one in a research and development organization. Some CTOs report to the CIO, some do not. But in any case, a synergistic relationship between the two is necessary for success.

A CTO's job can mix or match several types:

  • Infrastructure line manager. The CTO reports directly to the CIO and is responsible for IT housekeeping functions such as data center operations, desktop and network management, and information security. The CTO's role is equivalent to that of the ADP-Comms directors of yesteryear and requires little creativity or strategic thinking. In essence, the CTO becomes the CIO's internal outsourcer.

  • IT elitist. For organizations that want to dip their toes into the big CTO pool but not swim out too far, a limited but elite CTO is the answer. Sometimes the elite CTO reports to the CIO, sometimes not. The CTO has a small staff of technology experts who do anything from high-tech pet projects to specific IT studies and analyses. The job's impact tends to be minimal, as the focus is on short-term or limited-scope technology projects, not strategic IT enterprise initiatives.

  • Traditional visionary. A visionary but traditional CTO adds value as the enterprise technology advocate and problem solver. Responsibilities include providing a technology perspective on organizational strategies and investments and evaluating IT opportunities. The CTO is a key player in IT decisions for architectures, R&D, systems integration, IT standards, enterprise IT programs and technology insertion.

  • Disruptive visionary. As a recognized organizational radical, the disruptive CTO seeks to create bleeding/leading-edge IT capabilities quickly for strategic mission advantage. This type of CTO is rare, found in niche pockets usually outside the mainstream and shielded from bureaucrats by powerful organizational players. The military's transformation of its networks and the creation of Apple iPods are examples of innovative, disruptive technologies. Either established or de facto CTOs were involved in these successes.

CTOs of many varieties can provide organizations with a technology edge. The metrics for their success are simple: chartered with specific goals, tailored to prevailing or aspirational cultures and accountable for outcome-based results.

Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who is now a principal at Booz
Allen Hamilton, in McLean, Va. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com.

About the Author

Browning is a former Army senior executives and former Booz Allen Hamilton principal who now leads Browning Consultants.

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