Q: When does my business need to move beyond an IT staff to a CIO?

A: Let’s start with an explanation: A chief information officer ensures that your company procures, implements and operates the best IT systems and services to run the business—both now and five years down the line. What separates the CIO from the IT guy, whose job is to “keep the IT lights on,” is the ability to function as part of the executive team.

We talked to serial entrepreneur Karl Treier, CEO of Cloud Computing Advisors in Cincinnati, for his take on making the transition.

What responsibilities does a CIO have that an IT staffer doesn’t?

With the advent of SaaS and cloud services, the role of the IT professional is becoming less about procuring, configuring and managing hardware and more about managing services and service-level agreements. That certainly falls under the purview of a CIO, but unlike an IT person, the CIO is also ultimately responsible for safeguarding the security and compliance issues of the business’s data and that of its clients, as well as disaster-recovery policies.

Is there a specific point where a company outgrows its IT person?

Most businesses go through IT pain points as they grow, usually each time revenue climbs by a factor of 10: from $100,000 to $1 million; from $1 million to $10 million; from $10 million to $100 million and so on. Each time a business goes through one of these stages without the input of a CIO, the more likely the next technology expansion will need to occur sooner than planned—or worse, the new system will fail to live up to its expectations.

So if my business never does better than $1 million, I’m fine without a CIO?

That depends on the business. If technology is a cornerstone of your company, or if its product or service is some form of technology, then you need to have a professional, strategic IT resource—a CIO, or someone who thinks like a CIO—on staff, regardless of size. However, there are businesses that leverage a standard set of IT services where an initial consultation with a third-party IT consultant may be all that is needed. After that, a competent hands-on IT person or department may fit the bill.

What if I can’t afford even a full-time IT person?

You can get IT expertise on a pay- as-you-go basis. But if you go this route, ensure that the consultant is focused on companies of your size, has experience in your vertical and uses your technology portfolio.

Before you go to a website or job board to find an IT resource, use your network of contacts. LinkedIn is useful, but if you belong to a chamber of commerce or an industry vertical group, go that route first. After that, probably the best-known online job boards specifically tailored to IT recruiting include dice.com and cybercoders.com.