Chief Technology Officer vs. Chief Business Technology Officer

For many companies, technology doesn’t really matter because they don’t have the right leaders to help them identify opportunities to deploy technology to change their business. A Chief Business Technology Officer is one of the opportunities for companies to identify the right leader to help them accomplish their ambition of becoming technology-empowered!

I was recently working with one of the largest travel companies in the world to help them define their technology strategy for the next 5 years. During the first week of the project, the team and I found out that the client hadn’t made much progress implementing Cloud. As I started to dive deeper to understand the reason why, the clients told me that the main reason is that the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the client was trying to implement a multi-cloud solution. Multi-cloud solution on paper makes a lot of sense – one solution that can be supported on all types of public cloud infrastructure. In reality, however, out of the big 3 public cloud platforms that are available today, one cloud provider is already competing with our client in the travel business. Another one has been experimenting with the travel business on and off for years. In reality, this client will have a very difficult time convincing its Board of Directors to make major infrastructure investment in 2 out of the 3 leading public Cloud solutions who are competing with them on the business front. A multi-cloud future is not very likely for the client and the CTO has made a decision that is sound technology wise but unlikely business wise.


This unfortunately is not an isolated incident. Over the last couple of years, I have worked with a number of Chief Technology Officers who are super strategic technology wise and know the ins and outs of technology but are limited in their ability to make real impact applying technology to solve business problems. They struggle in both convincing the business to apply the technology and rallying the IT troop to implement CTOs’ strategic technology vision. “Ivory Tower”, “theoretical”, and “brilliant but impractical” are some of the keywords that I often hear describing the CTOs.


Why is this the case? Do companies still need Chief Technology Officers? If so, what type of Chief Technology Officers should companies have?


Let’s start with the Wikipedia’s definition of a Chief Technology Officer – “A chief technology officer (CTO), sometimes known as a chief technical officer or chief technologist, is an executive-level position in a company or other entity whose occupation is focused on the scientific and technological issues within an organization.”


The reason why Chief Technology Officers tend to focus on the ideal vision of technology has much to do with the history of the CTO job itself. Most companies have a CTO or a Chief Technologist already today. They usually report to CIOs and focus on the technology strategy and architecture for the whole company. A lot of CTOs don’t have application developers working for them. The CTO’s job is to create the technology blueprint and also ensure the application developers and project managers implement the target technology blueprint.


Given that application developers and project managers often represent what business is seeking, there tends to be a tension between the application developers and the CTO. Application developers need to deliver what the business is asking for on time and under budget. Shortcuts are sometimes taken to meet the tight deadline. CTOs, on the other hand, are focusing on the long term vision and the integrity of the whole IT landscape. The tension thus rises between the application developers and the CTOs, between the near term tight deadline and the long term technology vision.


Furthermore, CTOs often come with years of technology experiences. As the chief technologist, they are super deep in the technology realm. Their audience tends to be internal IT to decide what technologies to adopt and how to deploy the technologies. 


With more and more companies moving towards making technology a core part of their businesses, the traditional technology-forward CTO model is starting to show its limitations. As I described in my Why Technology Still Doesn’t Matter blog, most companies today face a bigger challenge of applying technology to change underlying business than purely finding the right technology to use. We have enough technology available today for every company to adopt. The issue is how to be more business back – how to identify the opportunities in business, growth and cost wise, truly use technology to change the business processes and products, and how to really make technology-enabled change happen.


The business back application of technology requires us to rethink the technology forward Chief Technology Officer positions. We need Chief Technology Officers who are deep in business and change management and be able to get the whole organization to see the art of possible with technology and adopt technology in every aspect of the business. This is what I could call a Chief Business Technology Officer (CBTO). 


The job of the CBTO is not only on defining technology strategy and vision, but more importantly, to identify major opportunities to apply leading and emerging technology to solve business areas’ biggest problems. However, the job is no longer just technology forward, seeking opportunities to apply technology. The job is much more business back, with the main objective as identifying business opportunities first and then matching possible technology solutions to capture the business opportunities. 


The Chief Business Technology Officer is first and foremost as a business executive. CBTO will have in-depth knowledge of where the industry and the customers are going and where the business opportunities and challenges will be. He/she will be credible business partners with fellow senior business executives to review individual business units’ performance and strategy and identify opportunities to apply technology to enable new growth and performance improvement.


The CBTOs will also continue their current focus of monitoring the latest and greatest technology advances. But the lens of their monitoring will shift from the How to the Why. In addition to understanding what technologies they should be considering, the questions for the CBTOs will be more of the Why – why should we care in the first place. The Why here will tie nicely with the business opportunities they have already identified.


The next generation CBTOs will be sitting at the intersection of business and technology. But he/she is also a general manager. He/she can not only identify business opportunities, and technology solutions, but as a general manager, he/she knows how to build a business case to secure the investment and how to sell the ideas and vision to the Board and to the whole company.


One of the hardest things for any company is change management. Applying technology to change business is going to be one of the most difficult changes every company makes. By nature, applying technology to change business requires both business and technology to work in a cross functional fashion. There is going to be language and mindset tension between the two groups. Furthermore, while many companies look at technology changes as pure “hard” changes, in reality, the technology applications are much more “soft” people changes. A successful Chief Business Technology Officer must have the right communication and change management capabilities to rally the troop and get his/her recommendations adopted.


Lastly, many organizations are shifting into a product-centric technology development model. Instead of the traditional waterfall projects and programs, they are developing technology products whose functionalities are delivered in quarterly releases. For these organizations, the CBTO could function as the Chief Technology Product Officer. The job can be described as identifying the necessary products that the company should have and what’s the release plan for all those products.


The following diagram depicts what a Chief Business Technology Officer job could look like:

For many companies, technology doesn’t matter because they don’t have the right leaders to help them identify opportunities to deploy technology to change their business. A Chief Business Technology Officer is one of the opportunities for companies to identify the right leader to help them accomplish their ambition of becoming technology-empowered!

Copyright © 2024 Parker Shi. All rights reserved.

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