Is there expanding role for CTO’s in the digital boardroom?

Is there expanding role for CTO’s in the digital boardroom?

by Marc Dowd, November 18, 2015

It seems like an age ago but soon after I joined Forrester Research in 2006 I noticed something odd. My job then was the personal advisor to leaders of technology organisations. I helped them make use of the research that Forrester published. What I noticed early on was that there was a strong theme about the role of the CIO, but the CTO was hardly ever mentioned.

Even then, nearly a decade ago, there was a sense that the CIO role was not fulfilling it’s potential. That it was a transitory position; a move from head of Information Systems (IS) on a path to something else.

Back then I remember thinking about the old story of the Head of Electricity. Apparently at some point in history many large business locations had their own generators and electrical systems. This was in the age before the electrical grid that we know now. The Head of Electricity was an important role that maintained a steady supply. Further he (I am pretty sure in those days it was a he) was responsible for standardisation of connections and related security.

The parallels with the CIO are fairly clear.  The obvious lack of Chief Electricity Officer today in this age of plug-and-play devices seems a pointed analogy.

The CTO role however was more interesting. At the time, as today, the CTO role often sits alongside the CIO. The purpose of the distinction is sometimes because the CTO principally oversees development of new technologies, or that the role is very much focused on the technology that customers will use.

What was true back then was that there were not as many CTOs as CIOs. Every company had a problem making software fit their internal processes and organisation but only technology companies were developing new technology or really focused on the customer impact of technology.

As a result, the CIO role had more prominence. Even in organisations that had both roles the CIO was all about making the company work better. The CTO was often associated with technology; that geek in the lab coat that nobody understood. If the CIO was Chief Electricity Officer, then the CTO was DR Frankenstein to many business executives.

But some things did get better. Actually, most things got better. Agile and Design Thinking involved the users. The API’s and the cloud went from being a nebulous concept to a real enabler of speed, agility and interconnectedness.

This age of connectedness coincided with the rise of the mobile web. I think the ability for so many individuals to access what they wanted to do in the moment of need had a profound effect.

For one thing hardware was literally in the hands of the consumers. Companies could leverage serious processing power they did not have to pay for – the smartphone. It also meant that applications and websites became simpler. Nobody wanted more functions than they could use. Also the idea that Apps evolve, they are not created in the perfect incarnation first time, became better understood – at least outside of the internal corporate environment.

As I watched the pressure on CIOs increased.  Users inside the corporation were doing it for themselves! About 3 years ago Marketing was singled out as the prime culprit of “Shadow IT”. Even the term is divisive. For many these changes suggested the end for the Technology leader.

Yet the sky did not fall in on the heads of Technology. All these changes did make it faster and cheaper to get technology running. But it also opened up a world of opportunity.

We started to see the rise of Customer Experience as a discipline. This was, for me, the moment when the CTO started to shine. Technology moved from the backroom plumbing focused on lowest cost above all. Technology came to be seen as the enabler of new ways of doing business.

The CTO’s role has changed; at least for those who are savvy enough to notice. The door to the boardroom has opened slightly. For the right leaders the Board is now amenable to consider what you do and what you have to say.

“Digital” has been the hype for a while now. Even the most staid Board member needs to know what it means. Personally I think it means nothing and everything. A portmanteau word that says little but used by the right Technology Leader is a way into a discussion of technology as a business driver. Rather than a boring business cost.

Time is right for the right person; someone who can speak clearly to the board about the benefits and risks of technology. And not just speak but lead as well. Throw off the lab coat image and help leaders realise that the future lies with technology customers will use.

Sure there is an education function, but in this age were seemingly “any 18-year-old kid can ‘do technology’ and build a $billion company” more than that is needed. Business leaders are listening – they would not mind a $Billion on the bottom line.  Talk their language. Get to know them. Become one of them.

In this follow on document, sponsored by Amdocs, we explore what CTO’s in the Telco world need to know about the Board and how it is evolving.

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