The Field-Grade Cto

By Smith, Roger | Research-Technology Management, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Field-Grade Cto

Smith, Roger, Research-Technology Management

If a Chief Information Offi cer (CIO) can manage the internal use of information technology throughout an organization and a Chief Financial Offi cer (CFO) can oversee the fi nances of an entire company, then it seems logical that a Chief Technology Offi cer (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 fi nance, or even IT. Technology is both more diverse and more specialized than fi nance and IT, and it may be more diffi cult 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 diffi cult, 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 fi eld-grade CTO.

Field-Grade Offi cers

The military has a long history of embedding functional experts into their fi eld units. These fi eld-grade offi cers fall between the senior ranks of generals and the lower company offi cers who have direct command of the troops. The fi eld offi cer 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 fi eld. He or she brings a unique expertise to the fi eld units, adding specialized knowledge where and when it is needed. Similarly, "fi eld-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 specifi c fi eld unit of the company. Having served as a CTO in a software company, a government acquisition offi ce, and a nonprofi t hospital system, I have observed that the function of the CTO has become much more of a fi eld 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 fi eld-grade CTO may or may not have offi cial reporting or accountability relationship to the C-suite CTO.

David Pratt, for example, has served as the chief technology and engineering offi cer, 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. …

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