If every business is a tech business, do we all need a CTO?

If every business is a tech business, do we all need a CTO? Author: Matt Cockbill Published: 14 August 2018

Over the last few days I’ve read a number of articles citing greater exploitation of tech (for which read AI, ML, RPA, IoT et al.) as the ‘next step’ in driving customer value, new business models and greater profitability. If the ‘every firm is a tech firm’ mantra of recent years holds water, identifying and taking advantage of technology is a prime source of competitive differentiation. Understanding these opportunities is a responsibility rightly placed in the hands of a CTO. In the last decade this community has moved the dial substantially on their ‘boardroom behaviours’ and leadership skills in order to be effective outside of the tech function as well as through tech. The lag has been with the rest of the board becoming tech savvy, and perhaps most acutely within the SME community where boards are traditionally a tighter community of ‘pure’ commercial and operational animals.

The right CTO creates the link between the existing technology landscape, and the design of the response to new opportunities for commercial products and services afforded by tech innovation. And there is the rub, for all of the hard work becoming more ‘board & business friendly’ our technology leaders can’t afford to become any less technical. The technology delivery engine has dramatically evolved too.  Extreme programming, agile led engineering, DevOps etc. have all shifted the needle from timelines measured in years between major releases, to hourly (if not faster) code releases in search of greater customer satisfaction and revenue share. 

Accepting that there is no such thing as an all-weather CTO, what makes the right CTO ‘right’?  Beyond culture it comes back to business context; technology adoption to transform, product investment to compete in an evolved market, or service transformation to gain greater market or wallet share. It is this which colours the hire; an innovator rich in R&D, optimiser who refines and drives operational effectiveness from existing assets, a transformer reshaping products and services to deliver real customer value. Generally businesses get the CTO they deserve, good or bad.

Where an organisation can match business need and the primary ‘mode’ of CTO required, it must also accept there is period within which they will be successful, and after which they will need a reset to a new challenge. Right tool, right job, followed by a solid succession plan.

However, irrespective of CTO ‘mode’ the board must create, buy into, and support the space for the CTO to deliver the best fit technology to attain commercial success. The quid pro quo for from the CTO is ensuring the ‘sum of the Board’s parts’ becomes tech savvy, articulating the art of the possible from enabling technologies in business operations and customer interactions alike. Take the example of financial services learning from the multi-channel experience of retailers; start a product application on an app, flip to a laptop or a call, then visit a branch to sign close the deal. Healthcare, consumer and automotive are exploiting similar approaches.  Getting in front of the tech trends, and influencing the Board through new customer dynamics is a crucial part to the success of any CTO irrespective of ‘mode’.

Accepting that in reality every firm isn’t a tech firm, the place for strong commercially minded tech leadership remains undeniable. Technology innovation through to delivery and exploitation must be led by the right CTO, the accountability for it and benefits from it must be owned by the whole board in order to maximise commercial returns and customer value.

Matt Cockbill leads the IT & Digital Leadership practice at Berwick Partners

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