CIO vs CTO: What are the Key Differences?

In this article, let's examine the two roles of the Chief information officer (CIO) and Chief technology officer (CTO) to understand the difference and how they can complement each other to maximize the added value to business organizations.

Yet, the differences between these two roles can be quite confusing at times, because IT consists of both "information" and "technology". So, the question is how do we distinguish the difference between these two roles? 

Generally speaking, CTOs usually look for ways to leverage technologies in order to improve or update the company's services/products offered to external customers and partners while CIOs would deal with internal matters, aiming to streamline business and technology processes and operations of the company. Let's take a closer look in detail as follow:

What does a CTO do?

Chief Technology Officers (CTO) focus on the development of the company's products and services by using and adopting innovative technologies to support the growth of the company, especially for strengthening the offerings that the company’s customers purchase by using the new technology.

The CTO focuses on external customers - those who buy your company's products, even if the product itself is not digital or technological. As consumers become smarter and more aware of the products they use, the CTO needs to keep abreast of the latest technology in order for the company to offer the best products.

For that purpose, CTOs often found themselves working with teams of software engineers and developers, as well as sales and marketing and external partners to conduct research and development to improve and innovate the company's services/products offerings.

In fact, CTO is a technology-focused role that involves architecture, engineering, and product-facing, thus many CTOs usually have a background in computer science or software engineering. On the other hand, a successful CTO must also utilize their other skills such as creativity by evaluating emerging technologies and bringing adoption of those technologies into the company in the most appropriate way.

Again, collaboration is also an important skill, as CTOs will have to work with the internal product development team and external partners to transform and innovate their businesses.

What does a CIO do?

In its simplest sense, the role of the Chief Information Officer is to oversee and align IT with business strategies to streamline and enhance business processes to increase both individual employee productivity and the company as a whole.

Specifically, the CIO is responsible for the overall operations of the IT department, and the management of critical software applications as well as IT security - from support offices to business systems to service delivery and management. 

The CIO could be regarded as an important advocate for all internal technology and digitalizing adoption. IT has generally been working and collaborating frequently with all departments within an organization, so the role of the CIO is to increase the profile and efficiency of a company’s IT services.

However, CIOs do not focus on just technology alone. For example, if a business needs to digitize, improve, or automate many of its repetitive business tasks using technology, the CIO needs to understand the business aspects of those processes, in order to align IT with business, although the actual implementation will be carried out by the IT team.

Extensive knowledge of different kinds of technologies is essential for a CIO to be successful in this role, even though one can't be expected to be a master of all. Leadership and communication skills are also important. A CIO should be able to oversee the majority of IT staff and various IT teams and he or she is also required to effectively communicate the needs and offers IT advice to other executives and department heads.

CIOs & CTOs work together

All in all, the works and operations of the two roles fall under the same roof, and they will have to work together to realize their strategies and goals to a successful end.

The two don’t always have to interconnect or work together all the time. Their strategies may come across as conflictive sometimes, but working together by understanding the difference between them is what helps to increase innovation in the organization.

CTOs consistently want to improve the products by using and constantly trying new technology stacks and investing money in new projects to increase profitability. These are the expectations for a typical CTO. 

The CIO, on the other hand, sets rules that may seek to regulate the CTO’s work and create a process that is more effective and consistent with business objectives.

For CTOs, CIOs could be seen as slowing down innovation. Still, CTO and CIO collaboration is one of the essential catalysts that keep an organization operating efficiently. To make it sustainable, each party must focus on their responsibilities and balance their strength to ensure the success of the organization as a whole when working together. 

Conclusion - CIO, and CTO: Who Do you need?

While many people who are not working in the IT industry may confuse CIOs and CTOs, both roles are critical to the success of a business. It’s likely for many organizations to consider one role to be superior over another or combine the two separate roles into one  - especially for small businesses that do not have the budget to create both positions, even though this is not the truth.

When it comes to CIO vs. CTO, one is usually not bigger or smaller than the other. In fact, many successful companies often have a strong presence of both CIOs and CIOs. Do your best to have both positions present as soon as possible.

If your company is looking to hire the position of a CTO or CIO, consider the followings:

  • Is your goal to automate or digitize a business process or product? Or
  • Are you looking to provide new, and enhanced experiences for the customers and partners of your company?

Businesses need innovative solutions that leverage technologies to improve their offerings, and they need someone to understand the trends as well and compare them with what others are doing to adopt and promote those advanced technologies, enhancing employees' productivity and business processes.

The roles of both CTO and CIO require extensive technical knowledge and skills to understand what technologies are needed for a company’s technology products and infrastructure. Thus, if you really enjoy learning about new technologies and applying them to businesses, this role(s) could be for you.