Mar 29 2007

CTOs and CIOs: Eye to Eye

Finding the right balance between technology visionaries and pragmatic managers is essential to IT effectiveness and productivity.

Finding the right balance between technology visionaries and pragmatic managers is essential to IT effectiveness and productivity.

West Virginia CTO Kyle Schafer and CIO Helen Wilson have reversed roles in the IT management hierarchy compared with many public and private organizations: Wilson reports to Schafer.

Information technology departments depend on a combination of right-brain and left- brain thinking.

Representing the right brain, or creative side, is the chief technology officer, who must stay abreast of the latest technologies and imagine how new innovations might bring higher efficiency and improve constituent services.

The left brain, or logical side, turns on a pragmatic CIO with well-honed managerial skills and a day-to-day focus on making the most of IT investments.

Unfortunately, sparks can fly when these different sensibilities converge, says Phillip J. Windley, associate professor of computer science at Brigham Young University and Utah’s former CIO. “You don’t get more efficient by being innovative and creative.”

State IT officials and analysts say that not only are the conflicts manageable when handled deftly, but the differences also can kindle beneficial creative tension and overall improvements in IT. Striking the right balance hinges on establishing clearly defined responsibilities and a workable reporting structure to mitigate destructive tensions, Windley and others say.

Conflict Avoidance

Some states avoid CTO-CIO conflicts by combining the responsibilities and finding a top-notch IT person who can wear both hats. In Kansas, for instance, Denise Moore is both CIO and CTO. “Having one person over both functions is challenging, but that helps keep all aspects of IT operations moving in the same direction and enables us to be more responsive,” she says.

Money concerns motivate other states to marry the two responsibilities. “Sometimes in the public sector, legislators are just not as sensitive as to why there should be two highly paid individuals in the IT division,” says Tracy Emerton Williams, who was Rhode Island’s CIO until late January and now works as an IT consultant.

States with a CTO and CIO sometimes rank the two positions differently than the reporting structure typical in industry, says Kyle Schafer, CTO for West Virginia and a former Fortune 250 technology chief. Although he used to report to a CIO in his industry jobs, as West Virginia’s CTO, he is the state’s highest ranking technology official. The state’s CIO, Helen Wilson, and five other senior officers in the Office of Technology report to him.

Three of a Kind

A few states have given their senior IT executives a title other than CIO or have CIOs that also wear the CTO mantle, but only Texas, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia have CTOs at the top of the systems-management food chain.

Source: National Association of State CIOs

Dueling Definitions

Chief information officer: The CIO generally is responsible for the organization’s internal systems. Primarily focused on the bottom line, the CIO has to understand how to craft and support repeatable processes, roll out reliable systems and prepare organizations to run them.

Chief technology officer: The CTO typically is responsible for the technical, engineering and development projects of the organization. A strong technologist, the CTO focuses on understanding technology and products and how they can best serve internal and external IT users.

No one held the formal title of CTO during Williams’ tenure in Rhode Island, but the state did have a de facto CTO with the title of assistant director. The intentionally generic title gave Williams a lot of flexibility in filling the job and assigning duties to that officer, she says.

“The person ended up performing what I would call the strategic architecture role. His job was to make sure that project managers and the agencies sponsoring a project were complying with the state’s architectural standards,” she says. “He also was the person to say, ‘We are not going to introduce another database technology into the state’s portfolio.’”

Although the assistant director’s job was flexible, the resulting conflicts often were anything but. Williams says she and her technology strategist sometimes clashed over how fast the state should adopt new technologies. “Sometimes he wanted to take the agencies too far, too fast,” Williams recalls. “You really have to take things one step at a time.”

Her solution: “Sometimes, I would say, ‘Instead of going full tilt, why don’t we do a pilot project first to be on the safe side?’” Another option that worked for Williams was to send developers and other IT team members responsible for implementing new technologies to training sessions.

This approach didn’t stonewall innovation, which reduced flare-ups with the assistant director. At the same time, the state had time to gauge a new technology’s usefulness within Rhode Island’s larger IT environment and even had in-house expertise if a particular innovation eventually received a green light.

Smoothing Ruffled Feathers

  • Use pilot projects to balance the dual needs of technology visionaries and IT managers.
  • Use upfront training as a tool for balancing desire for innovation with a demand to support day-to-day needs.
  • Establish a management structure where the CIO and CTO report to a chief executive who has authority to settle conflicts.

Direct Connection

Schafer and Wilson manage West Virginia’s common applications, such as human resource systems, statewide accounting systems and e-mail. The other three directors and one administrative manager handle project management, client services, security and telecommunications. “We meet regularly to discuss how we are meeting our service-level obligations for the various agencies we support,” Schafer says.

As the CIO, Wilson manages shared services and oversees programmers and database administrators. “When it comes time for procurements like an upgrade to equipment in the data center I’m the one who makes the case to Kyle,” she says.

Because she reports directly to him, there aren’t problems with overlapping responsibilities, Schafer says. “I forward to her anything that comes to me that deals with common business applications,” he says.

Wilson and Schafer schedule a half-hour meeting every week to update each other. Schafer and Wilson also meet with the other senior officers every other Friday.

These communications pay off. “There’s no overlap in our roles because Kyle’s aware of everything that’s going on,” Wilson says. She uses the same strategy for her direct reports. “I make sure all the managers who work for me meet regularly and share ideas, too. They all know what the others are doing so they aren’t duplicating their efforts.”

Schafer, who reports to the secretary of Administration, sets the long-term technology strategy for the state. “Gov. Joe Manchin’s intent is to reduce the cost and size of government, so [the administration] is looking to me to determine how technology can help achieve that goal,” Schafer says.

To meet that mandate, he’s implementing a statewide standardization and consolidation effort. “Every agency doing its own thing results in duplicate maintenance and software licenses, and spending extra money on underutilized hardware,” Schafer says.

Standardization will bring about significant cost savings by lowering maintenance expenses and tapping the buying power of larger-volume purchasing, he says. This strategy already is paying off. Before West Virginia set a common hardware standard for PCs that consists of the same brand in predetermined configurations, the average cost per unit was about $250 higher than the state pays today through competitive task orders. The price for each notebook PC has dropped by $300. West Virginia now is standardizing its server, storage and telephony environments and expects to achieve similar savings here, Schafer says.

Call In a Referee

As most states don’t have a reporting structure comparable to West Virginia and sometimes have CTOs who don’t report to the CIO, Brigham Young’s Windley suggests establishing a three-person reporting structure with a chief who reigns over the operations and development managers. “Deploying new software is the last thing the operations guy ever wants to do because that means performance headaches. He would just as soon have everything stay the same,” Windley says. That attitude is understandable given that most organizations evaluate the operations department according to strict metrics that summarize weekly uptime rates and similar availability criteria.

By contrast, the technology development staff usually receives recognition when it implements new technology that yields time and money savings. Unfortunately, short-term disruptions caused by launches can rattle uptime rates. Without a top decision-maker, organizations may find themselves courting stagnation by delaying innovations or, conversely, by becoming overly aggressive at the expense of efficiency.

Windley advises states to structure the CTO and CIO roles so they report individually to a chief executive officer, or other senior administrator, who makes sure the two organizations’ different responsibilities mesh with overall goals and the state’s missions. It’s the CEO’s job to mediate conflicts that arise between the CIO and CTO.

When agencies manage the left-brain, right-brain conflict inherent between CTOs and CIOs, there’s a chance to improve operations management and inject leading-edge systems, Windley says. “As long as the individuals learn how to balance what they each want to do, or come to the chief executive to make a call when they can’t figure out a solution, this process forces the organization to prioritize decisions in a healthy way.”

Splitting the Difference

Conflicts can arise as CIOs and chief technology officers perform their duties. Some states relieve the strain by including a crew of mission-driven managers to create balance between the CIO’s management initiatives and the CTO’s technology recommendations.

That’s the approach Phillip J. Windley, associate professor of computer science at Brigham Young University, took as the former CIO for the state of Utah. He created a team of product managers, one for each agency. Windley described the managers as mission-savvy people who also had a technology bent. Their job was to ask, “What e-government products does my agency need to offer constituents?”

He then formed a Product Management Council that met monthly to exchange ideas about technology projects.

West Virginia has taken a similar tack. Its project managers oversee all technology projects valued at more than $100,000 and provide a bridge between the visionary and management roles that can separate CTOs and CIOs, the state’s CTO, Kyle Schafer, says. “The project managers take on both a strategic approach and a project implementation approach to do our IT efforts.”