Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Dynamic Technology Leadership: The Adaptive Role of the CTO: Effective CTOs Have a Wide Array of Evolving Priorities That Relate to Technology Transition Points That Can Be Either Imposed by the External Environment or Initiated from within the Organization

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Dynamic Technology Leadership: The Adaptive Role of the CTO: Effective CTOs Have a Wide Array of Evolving Priorities That Relate to Technology Transition Points That Can Be Either Imposed by the External Environment or Initiated from within the Organization

Article excerpt

There is an ongoing recognition of the importance of the role of Chief Technology Officers (CTOs); in fact, this journal recently devoted a special issue to the topic (May-June 2011). The six articles in that issue clearly demonstrate how the current climate is amplifying the importance of technology--and therefore the need for CTOs. For example, Sakkab (2011) demonstrated the urgent need for more innovation in the United States, and Chidambaram (2011) discussed the situation in India. Hartley (2011) investigated the impact of CTOs on company performance, finding that their efforts support innovation, lead to growth, and create better margins. Although the special issue answered important questions, in many ways it also signaled that we do not know enough about the challenges facing CTOs and the activities for which they are responsible. In particular, the special issue encouraged us to further explore the contribution of CTOs when their host organization creates, or needs to react to, major contextual discontinuities.

To address this gap, we conducted 30 interviews with CTOs of global firms, using a cognitive mapping approach to gain deeper insights into their core purpose and the related barriers and enablers that they encounter. Based on the data from these in-depth interviews, we identified a wide range of activities that CTOs need to manage, including both strategic and operational domains. Interestingly, our interviews demonstrated that individual CTO priorities are highly idiosyncratic. Further investigation showed that individual interviewees were creating or responding to triggers--technology transition points--that could significantly change the strategic and operational expectations for the CTO role. In analyzing interview data, we identified eight types of technology transition points. A better understanding of the types of technology transitions--and the priorities likely to accompany them-will further clarify the contribution and thus the strategic impact and organizational standing of the CTO.

Previous Research on CTOs

One of the first detailed discussions of the role of the CTO was from Adler and Ferdows (1990), who describe the need for CTOs to coordinate the development of new technology across different business units. Today, many organizations have managers with specific responsibility for technology, but the exact nature of their responsibilities--both tactical and strategic--and their job titles can vary considerably. Delmar (2003) points out that the CTO title emerged only in the 1980s. Even today, managers with a diverse range of titles, including Technical Director, Technology Director, Chief Scientist, Vice President of R&D, and Innovation Director, are collectively or individually responsible for technology management. Given this variety, we use the CTO label to refer to all senior executives responsible for innovation and technology management, regardless of the specific title the role may carry in particular organizations.

Hartley (2011) provides an excellent summary of the wider CTO literature; here we summarize the research around two key points that are especially pertinent to the evolution of the CTO role: the changing environment for technology management and the specific responsibilities of CTOs.

Changing Technology Management Environment

There is broad agreement that the range of technologies being developed and the speed at which they emerge have both increased in recent decades. As a consequence, the CTO's responsibilities are broadening. Jonash (1996) predicted a "significant expansion" in the role of the CTO, with more tasks added without existing duties becoming any less important. The role is likely to continue to change since technological priorities will differ over time (Scott 2001). The increasing complexity of the role is also demonstrated by the proliferation of life-cycle models that aim to facilitate technology management by associating certain priorities with specific stages in a product or technology life cycle. …

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