Do I need a fractional/virtual CIO?
Written by: George Sawyer
Published on: 08 Jul 2024

Isn’t that for big companies?

When we think of the c-suite we envision the big corporations. There are the chief executive officers and the chief financial officers, and the chief so-and-so. On the tech side of the c-suite there are a few positions including a chief technology officer (CTO) and a chief information officer (CIO) or increasingly the chief information security officer (CISO). The CTO’s role is usually focused on building technological products for the company to sell. While the CIO is usually focused internally on the technology the business uses day to day. The CIO is responsible for selecting appropriate technology, keeping data secure, and keeping the business compliant with government regulators. So what is a Fractional CIO (aka Virtual CIO)?

Small and medium businesses (SMB) don’t usually have a CIO. Depending on their size, they may have an IT manager or director and a small IT shop that provides support and keeps the business tools running. That manager/director role tends to be tactical in mandate and typically does not have a seat at the leadership table where business strategy takes place. The leadership team is typically making best guesses at what technology would be appropriate for the business and decisions are too often based on some vendor’s sales sales pitch. That puts the SMB at a real disadvantage since every business down to the ma & pa is completely dependent on technology in this day and age. The result is frustration, inefficiency, wasted money, and security vulnerabilities.

Every business from the ma & pa up needs a trusted strategic advisor in technology

In steps the Fractional CIO. Every business from the ma & pa up needs a trusted strategic advisor in technology. Whether it’s choosing a website designer or a customer relationship manager (CRM) platform, tech decisions are costly and hard to change down the road. Small businesses are discovering the value of having that strategic role in their leadership team but are challenged with the cost of adding a head count at that pay grade. The Fractional CIO is a shared resource across several businesses and allows a pay-as-you-go pricing model for leadership talent.

Isn’t that just a consultant?

So is this just a consultant? No, the Fractional CIO is a strategic trusted leader. A consultant, while also trustworthy, tends to be project focused and tactical. The consultant’s outcomes are typically aligned on short- to medium-range objectives such as launching a new website or accounting system. How that website or accounting system fits into the strategic business plan is not normally in the consultant’s line of sight. The Fractional CIO has that high-level view and is considering the long-term business objectives of the company.

Getting things done right the first time is worth the investment for your business.

What will a Fractional CIO do for me?

The first question should be: “Who does the Fractional CIO work for?” Many managed service providers (MSP) provide a virtual CIO (vCIO) or an account manager billed as a trusted advisor. This isn’t necessarily bad and has the advantage of, often, being a one-stop-shop for all of your technology needs. However, it’s unlikely that the advisor is going to be willing to advise you toward a product that competes with one carried by the MSP. Ultimately, the advisor’s loyalty will be to their employer.For that reason, I suggest engaging an advisor who is vendor agnostic and who is not a contractor under a bigger MSP.

When I engage a client, every contract is a bit different depending on the size and type of business. Generally, the smaller the business, the more hands-on my work. Not all Fractional CIOs will be willing to be hands-on and not all businesses need/want a hands-on strategist. In any case, a clear mandate and scope of work should be expected. Remember, ultimately, the CIO role is strategic, not tactical. Expect to involve your CIO in any strategic discussions and business planning. For small shop, this may be over coffee. For a medium-size business, this might mean regular leadership meetings and your CIO will need to attend and prepare for.

A Fractional CIO isn’t cheap. But then, neither are mistakes, security breaches, and inefficiencies. Getting things done right the first time is worth the investment for your business.

Engaging A Strategist

When you consider engaging a Fractional CIO, keep in mind that your candidate gets paid for their time and expertise. Don’t expect to get your solutions in the interview and not engage them. Look for someone you trust and is able to listen to your situation. Do they “get it?” If they ask lots of questions, that’s usually a good sign. Remember, they are interviewing you too. I get lots of requests for my time so I’m very picky in the clients I engage.

Think you might need a strategist? Book a coffee with me and let’s talk. If I’m not the right fit, I’ll help you find someone who is…that’s just what I do.

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