The difference between a CIO, a CTO and a CDO




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In light of the importance of leadership capabilities for the digital transformation of an organization, chances are high that you stumble upon abbreviations like CTO, CIO or CDO. I didn’t really know what the exact difference is, so I started to do conduct a little research and I would like to share the results with you.

The term CIO, Chief Information Officer, was first defined by Synnott and Gruber in 1981 as a senior executive of the organization responsible for information policy, management, control, and standards. They further added that the five primary functions of a CIO include participation in corporate strategic planning, responsibility for information systems planning, leading the development of corporate or institutional information policy, management of the organization’s information resources, and development of new information systems capabilities. I believe this definition is still quite accurate to describe the role of a CIO today. Just today the focus of a CIO is much more on actually increasing profits with the use of IT. From the definition, you can also tell that a CIO is rather internally faced and is mostly responsible for processes that happen within the organization.

The role of a CTO, a Chief Technology Officer, shares some common attributes with the role of a CIO. Both positions need to have a strong business understanding in order to bring added value to the organization and to align their respective responsibilities with organizational goals. They also need to have a technical background, so that they can understand and evaluate the underlying technologies in a business. In comparison to a CIO however, the CTO has a more customer facing role and is mostly responsible for enhancing the company’s product offerings. Connected to that, another difference of both roles is that the CTO is usually responsible for the development of new technologies in a company, whereas the CIO has its focus more on organizational problems and tries to solve these with existing IT solution.

Next to both roles, which have been around for a while now, the role of a CDO, a chief digital officer, has emerged recently. His major responsibility lies in digitally transforming traditional businesses to digital ones. In order to do so, the CDO needs to determine the parts of the business where influencers are able to support the change and to empower these influencers. That’s why, it is especially important that the person that fills in this role is not only a digital expert but also familiar with all parts of the organization.

I hope this short summary helped you to get a better understanding of these particular roles in an organization. Please keep in mind that these are not fixed roles and every company can interpret a role differently and the roles have been changing throughout the past. If you want to read further on this topic, I recommend you to check out my sources. Also, if you are curious how people actually became CTOs, CIOs or CDOs and what jobs they did prior to that, I recommend you to just use the LinkedIn advanced search and search for these positions in the country of your choice. This works fine even if you are not a Premium user.

I wonder what your opinion is on these roles. Does every company need to have all three roles on their board? Or do you think the CDO is just an evolution from the CIO and will make this role redundant?



Penrod, James I. “The Chief Information Officer in Higher Education. Professional Paper Series,# 4.” (1990).

Synnott, William R., and William H. Gruber. Information resource management: opportunities and strategies for the 1980s. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1981.,2528153

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4 thoughts on “The difference between a CIO, a CTO and a CDO”

  1. Dear Hendrik, thank you for your interesting post. When I was reading the ‘Leading Digital’ book of Westerman, Bonnet and Andrew (2014) I came across the title CDO as well. I had a sense of what it would entail, but your blog has definitely cleared the definitions.

    You raise the question of whether it is necessary to have all these roles on the board. I don’t necessarily think that the CDO is an evolution of the CIO that will replace it in the long-term since they have a different focus. First of all, I guess it depends on the size of the firm. The mid-sized firm can probably suffice with just one information/technology chief that shifts its activities based on what the firm needs at that moment. However, with the current waves of digitization I think adding a CDO to the management mix can add a lot of value of any firm. A CDO is vital to evangelize digital thinking and push through change that embrace new opportunities and threats presented by digital disruption. For implementing digital transformation, a different skills set is needed than either the CIO or CTO possesses.

    1. Nanne, thank you for your comment. I agree with you that it depends on the size of the company, but maybe for a small to medium sized company it would be better if the CIO evolves to the CDO. I agree the skills needed are different for both, but also the tasks are. Earlier on the CIO needed to take care of an exchange mail server, a file server, etc. Today you sign your business up with google, dropbox, amazon aws and you don’t need to configure anything. So I think, in those time the skillset of a CIO is less demanded than the skillset of a CDO.

  2. Hi Hendrik. Thank you for the clarifying post. Just as Nanne above, I stumbled across the term CDO in the ‘Leading Digital’ book and had I vague idea of the differences between a CTO, CIO or CDO.
    By reading your overview of the three, a more structured idea of the similarities and the differences has emerged.

    Highlighting from your article, this is how I clarified the roles for myself:
    CIO: focus on actually increasing profits with the use of IT, rather internally faced and is mostly responsible for processes that happen within the organization, tries to solve organizational problems with existing IT solutions.

    CTO: a more customer facing role, mostly responsible for enhancing the company’s product offerings, usually responsible for the development of new technologies in a company,

    CDO: Major responsibility lies in digitally transforming traditional businesses to digital ones.

    With respect to the question you raised. I agree with Nanne that I don’t think that the CDO is an evolution of the CIO, as the focus of both titles is different. However, as you said in your article, each company may describe different responsibilities to the different titles.
    As there is some overlap between the three, I believe most companies will not necessarily need three separate individuals for those separate roles. Especially in small to medium sized enterprises, this will not be the case.
    Referring back to the ‘Leading Digital’ book, I do believe that adding a CDO will increase the chances of transforming a company towards a ‘Digital Master’.

    1. Jaimy, thank you for your answer! I totally agree with you that small businesses are most likely not dependent on having all three roles on the board. But I think it would help them if they clearly define the role and most small to medium businesses I belive have rother old definitions of their role of a CIO. So transforming this role to a CDO would make a lot of sense to these companies.

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