The Field-Grade CTO
Smith, Roger, Research-Technology Management
If a Chief Information Officer (CIO) can manage the internal use of information technology throughout an organization and a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) can oversee the finances of an entire company, then it seems logical that a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) should be able to direct the use of all non-IT technologies across a company's product-development and manufacturing processes, doesn't it?
But technology is not finance, or even IT. Technology is both more diverse and more specialized than finance and IT, and it may be more difficult to manage with the same top-down hierarchy used in those domains. Within any large corporation, there are literally hundreds of unique technologies to be evaluated, adapted, and incorporated into products or production processes. An aerospace company may have interests in metals, composites, radar systems, and avionics. At an oil company, the central technologies may be in remote sensing, seismology, and oceanography. While they are related areas, they are also widely divergent. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a single CTO to get his arms around all of the technologies that may be important to a complex organization and provide meaningful guidance about which ones to pursue and how.
Lewis and Lawrence (1990) counseled the CTO to get out of the research lab and contribute to the business strategy: "The CTO's key tasks are not those of lab director writ large but, rather, of a technical businessperson deeply involved in shaping and implementing overall corporate strategy" (59). Perhaps, I would suggest, the CTO should also get out of the C-suite and into the detailed workings of the business units. In a world of diverse technologies, there is a need for more senior technologists looking into fewer technologies each. What's needed, in short, is a field-grade CTO.
The military has a long history of embedding functional experts into their field units. These field-grade officers fall between the senior ranks of generals and the lower company officers who have direct command of the troops. The field officer does not directly manage and direct combat troops; rather, he or she focuses on a specialty area such as logistics, intelligence, or communications, along with all of the details involved in that field. He or she brings a unique expertise to the field units, adding specialized knowledge where and when it is needed. Similarly, "field-grade CTOs" could be distributed across business units, providing specialized expertise in the few technologies most important to each unit.
In fact, this structure has already been adopted in many companies, where technology leaders are focused on the use of technology within a specific field unit of the company. Having served as a CTO in a software company, a government acquisition office, and a nonprofit hospital system, I have observed that the function of the CTO has become much more of a field operation, rather than a single C-suite position (Smith 2007). Though there may be a single CTO at the top, most companies also employ a number of business-unit level CTOs engaged in the operations of just one specialized area. Further, this field-grade CTO may or may not have official reporting or accountability relationship to the C-suite CTO.
David Pratt, for example, has served as the chief technology and engineering officer, chief scientist, and fellow for the modeling, simulation, and training business unit of SAIC, a company of 46,000 people headquartered in northern Virginia. He reports to the business unit's senior vice president and weighs in on all strategic issues involving that unit's products and services. He has a voice in decisions to make acquisitions, pursue new contracts, and expand into new markets. But he does not serve as the CTO for the entire company, nor is he expected to be a master of every technology that this global company uses. His relationship with the C-suite CTO is more akin to those within a consulting company. …