The Case for a Fractional CIO

What is a fractional CIO and when does hiring one make sense?

Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data

July 17, 2023

5 Min Read
Smiling Young Businesswoman Doing Multitasking Work At Workplace
Andriy Popov via Alamy Stock

For small and mid-range companies, using a fractional CIO provides them with expertise that they can’t afford to hire on a permanent basis.

A fractional CIO is exactly what it says it is. It is a CIO that your company hires on a contract for part-time or on-demand work. In this way, you get the benefit of the CIO position and the knowledge that comes with it, but you don’t have to hire in a CIO as a dedicated, permanent employee.

Here are several areas where companies frequently hire fractional CIOs:

  • Assistance with vendors and hardware/software selection;

  • Help with building or structuring an IT department;

  • Assistance in finding and recruiting qualified IT personnel, including a fulltime CIO;

  • Project management;

  • Help in reviewing, recommending and implementing new technologies;

  • Development of IT strategic plans and roadmaps;

  • Development and testing of disaster recovery and business continuation plans;

  • Technology training and education program development for IT staff, executives and business users.

Consider a small or mid-sized company, where the head of IT is often an applications or network manager with no prior CIO experience but who has been promoted to lead an IT function. A fractional CIO can impart seasoned knowledge and practices that can help the new manager grow into CIO responsibilities.

How Having a Fractional CIO Works

Company X was in the farm-to-table coffee and tea business, but it couldn’t find an ERPsoftware that was suited for its industry. As a side venture and to help the company itself, Company X decided to write its own ERP system. It hired an independent software developer to write the software.

Six months later, the developer delivered the new ERP software, but it didn’t work!  Several major features and functions were missing, and the software  was fraught with errors. Company X didn’t quite know how to resolve these issues, so it brought in a fractional CIO to work with the developer and the company for a three-month period. The goal was to resolve software issues and to arrive at a working product, which was a success.

In another case, Company Y had reached a tipping point to where it both needed and could afford to hire a fulltime CIO. However, Company Y's management was unsure about how to go about the recruitment process, or what qualities and skills it should look for in that CIO. Company Y elected to hire a fractional CIO to assist with the recruitment and hiring process, with the end goal of identifying and hiring a good candidate, which it did.

In the cases of the Company X and Company Y, the fractional CIO was only there for as long as he/she was needed. Once tasks were completed, the companies and their fractional CIOs parted ways, with the understanding that the fractional CIO could be called back at any time that a need arose.

How to Choose a Fractional CIO

For companies that can’t justify  hiring a full-time CIO, there is virtually no downside for going with a fractional CIO. However, there are important qualities and skillsets in this fractional CIO that companies should seek. Among them are:

IT knowledge.A CIO’s strategic skills and working knowledge  is across all IT disciplines, from applications, database, systems and networks; to IoT, edge technology, security, storage, support, the help desk and training.

Vertical industry knowledge.It’s a value-add to hire a CIO who is familiar with the industry that the company is in. For example, a fractional CIO with extensive knowledge of healthcare is going to know about issues such as HIPAA requirements, electronic medical records (EMR), integration of hospital systems with clinics, and the systems and people impact of hospital mergers.

Ability to work with management, users and IT.There are circumstances where a fractional assignment requires confidentiality, but most fractional assignments don’t. For non-confidential work, when a fractional CIO (oranyconsultant) is bought into an organization, the specific purpose of his/her assignment should be clearly communicated to those he/she will be working with. The fractional person himself/herself should be a strong  communicator.

Some years ago in my early career, a company I worked for  brought in a fractional CIO to evaluate a new software package for our application development process. However, our CIO never told us what he hoped to achieve, and the individual himself never made his way out of his office to get to know people. This created  anxiety among staff. After several months, we heard that the fractional CIO had made some kind of a software recommendation, but the recommendation was never implemented. No one ever knew if the company got its “money’s worth” from this fractional assignment. All we knew was that nothing in our department changed.

Skills in both strategy and execution,The best fractional CIO is one who has “lived” IT. Many people can create conceptual plans and roadmaps, but those best qualified also have the ability to successfully run or bail out a project.

Individuals who can both strategize and execute are worth their weight in gold. Even if they are just developing a strategy for you, their backgrounds already inform them as to what works and what doesn’t for the scenario you’re in. They can incorporate this experience into the plan that they write for you.

Ability and willingness to educate.In some high technology projects, IT organizations find that they have gained very little in long-term benefits after a fractional CIO completes a project for them.

When you bring in a fractional CIO, the ideal thing is to find someone who is willing to share what he or she knows with your own staff, and to mentor them so they can assume some of these responsibilities on their own. In this way, you not only reap the benefits of the successful project that the fractional CIO was retained for, but your staff gains knowledge from the training and mentoring that this individual was able to impart.

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About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett

President of Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.

Mary has business experience in Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim. She has a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years. She is listed in Who's Who Worldwide and in Who's Who in the Computer Industry.

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