CIO vs CISO: What are the 5 Big Differences?

As companies continue to dive deeper into digital transformation efforts, a growing number of those organizations are hiring top-level executives to lead technology initiatives. The Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) act as two of the most senior members of a technical team, but what exactly do they do? How do they work separately and how do they work together?

CIOs and CISOs see a lot of overlap in their roles, but each executive plays a distinctive part in IT development. The primary difference between the two positions is that CIOs have a hand in every IT team within a company, whereas CISOs specialize in security. Read on to see a deeper comparison of CIO vs CISO responsibilities, traits, and expectations.

1. CIO vs CISO: Generalist vs Specialist

Perhaps the biggest difference between the CIO and CISO roles is their primary scope of work. CIOs function mostly as IT generalists, while CISOs work as specialists in the security realm.

Companies typically designate their CIOs as the top IT strategist in the company, so they’re expected to have wide-ranging knowledge across each IT-related team. The person who works in this position relies on more generalized experience to build and brainstorm across IT infrastructure — including security — while also communicating those decisions to stakeholders outside of tech teams.

The CISO, on the other hand, is still an executive officer for the company, but with a more narrow scope of work. They lead all company security initiatives, so it’s their job to develop expert-level, specialized knowledge in everything the security team does. Some common specialized responsibilities for a CISO include the management of hardware, software, training, monitoring, and auditing for security protocols.

2. The CIO’s Business Management Strategy

As far as members of a company’s IT staff go, the CIO carries the most responsibility for understanding and communicating greater business initiatives. The CIO is in the room where big decisions happen, speaking with other executives frequently about the direction of the company and what the IT team needs to do to support those goals. 

Although the CISO is also an executive in the company and may be included in some of these wider business discussions, they are typically limited to decisions that affect company security planning. While this approach is not always the case, some CISOs report under a hierarchy led by CIOs because of the CIO’s closer connection to business-wide initiatives.

More on CIO Strategy: The Future of IT Is Hybrid: Four Tips for CIOs to Find Success

3. The CISO and Security Program Management

The CISO acts as the main leader of all things security in the company. Some of their main responsibilities include the following security projects:

  • Developing and managing a security program for the company, otherwise known as a cyber risk management framework
  • Providing training to security and general staff on security protocols
  • Initiating regular network monitoring and network security audits
  • Staying up-to-date with the latest regulatory and cybersecurity developments that affect the business’s security framework

The CIO occasionally helps with process development and improvement as it relates to security best practices, typically for applications and teammates under their supervision. However, the CISO acts as the final authority on what needs to be done to protect network data.

Read more on Enterprise Networking Planet: Creating a Network Audit Checklist

4. How CIOs and CISOs Work with Data

Although the CIO may more directly engage with and make use of company data for IT strategy or company-wide initiatives, the CISO is more responsible for securing that data on the enterprise network.

For CIOs, it’s all about strategic data use. These tech leaders manage IT systems in order to analyze company data. Because the CIO recognizes the business relevance of data and different users who will need access to that data, they may also play a part in strategic cybersecurity management for these assets.

CISOs are typically the main leaders and decision-makers when it comes to data security. Some of their main data responsibilities include data and privacy compliance, fraud prevention, and creating a security framework that directly protects the company’s most sensitive data. A CISO is expected to know where data is, who can and should access it, and what to do if that data is compromised.

Read more: CIO vs CEO: What Are the Major Differences?

5. Third-Party Relationship Management

Although a significant number of third-party relationships are managed outside of the tech team entirely, both the CIO and the CISO steer some key priorities when it comes to external relationship management.

The CIO is the primary IT strategist who engages with and builds relationships with third parties. This individual may handle negotiations, marketing, and/or sales of IT products and services, whether the company is in the buying or selling position.

In contrast, the CISO only engages with third parties when they or their systems will need direct access to sensitive company data or infrastructure. In this case, the CISO secures third-party data and ensures that all third-party partners follow data regulations — such as GDPR or HIPAA — that could negatively impact the company and its customers if not followed.

Interested in learning more about top IT roles? Get the data here: 10 Best-Paying IT Jobs in 2021


The CIO and CISO lead very different technical initiatives for a company, which is why many larger organizations choose to hire for both roles. However, both of these individuals have a higher understanding of company information and how IT infrastructure works with it.

Because of their similar tools, resources, and background knowledge, CIOs and CISOs are most successful when they plan their security, data use, and infrastructural strategy together. In other words, it’s rarely CIO vs CISO; it’s more often CIO and CISO, working better when they work together.

Read Next: What Are CIOs Looking for in Current IT Grads?

Shelby Hiter
Shelby Hiter
Shelby Hiter is a writer with more than five years of experience in writing and editing, focusing on healthcare, technology, data, enterprise IT, and technology marketing. She currently writes for four different digital publications in the technology industry: Datamation, Enterprise Networking Planet, CIO Insight, and Webopedia. When she’s not writing, Shelby loves finding group trivia events with friends, cross stitching decorations for her home, reading too many novels, and turning her puppy into a social media influencer.

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