Mar 05 2012

Must-Read IT Blogger Q&A: Chris Curran

This blogger uses his knowledge and experience to help CIOs and IT leaders go from good to great.

As a partner and CIO adviser at PwC, Chris Curran guides clients through technology transformation. Using detailed research and his well-honed expertise, Curran knows what it takes to make a great CIO.

In addition to his work at PwC, Curran regularly contributes to a variety of industry publications, including CIO Insight, Investor’s Business Daily, Baseline, InformationWeek, and Insurance and Technology.

As IT leaders, if there’s one thing CIOs are short on, it’s time. Curran’s blog, CIO Dashboard, was selected as one of BizTech’s 50 Must-Read IT Blogs last year for its concise and highly readable articles, which help CIOs focus on the things that matter.

We recently caught up with Curran and asked him a few questions about IT, leadership and blogging.

BIZTECH: What are your daily must-visit tech stops online?

CURRAN: TechCrunch, Wired, Technology Review Magazine, O’Reilly Radar, MIT Sloan Management Review

BIZTECH: What emerging technology do you think will most change the enterprise landscape in 2012?

CURRAN: Last year, aside from server virtualization and a few CRM apps, most organizations hadn’t really started using the cloud, but that’s changing now. This year more companies will develop prototype applications in a rapidly provisioned, web-based environment. Think about how long it takes to get a server set up for a simple prototype or demo. Speeding the invention process will change the enterprise landscape faster than anything.

Businesses haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tapping the power of HTML5. Expect to see more companies catch on this year. HTML5 simplifies web development, expedites delivery, and improves the customer experience across multiple platforms and channels at a time when customers crave the ability to pivot on a dime. There’s no reason to wait until HTML5 is officially ratified as the standard. Many browsers currently support the majority of HTML5 (e.g., Chrome, Safari) while other browsers will do so in the near future (e.g., IE9, Firefox 4) and HTML5 is backward compatible so legacy browsers will simply ignore the new features.

BIZTECH: What existing technology do you think businesses have most underutilized?

CURRAN: I find it baffling that organizations have the ability to know exactly what their customers are saying about them online, yet so many of them don’t take advantage of the opportunity to be a fly on the wall of digital conversations. Businesses can utilize this information to expand and deepen their relationships with customers at a time when impeccable customer service is paramount to sustaining business growth.

BIZTECH: What's the most innovative, creative or unusual way an organization has deployed technology that you've come across?

CURRAN: We recently worked with one of the world’s largest enterprise software developers on a social collaboration strategy. As you know, enterprise software deployments are complex, customized to each customer and incredibly time consuming.

Uncovering consistencies between installations could save a lot of time, but that meant letting customers, partners and employees talk to each other, which was unheard of at this company. It was a bold move for a B2B company, but they did it. What I found impressive was that they truly acted in the spirit of social collaboration, which really is about doing business without boundaries. It takes courage to identify a problem and to tear down artificial walls between groups of people to overcome barriers to better business.

BIZTECH: When it comes to small business technology, what best practice can't be repeated often enough?

CURRAN: I’ve been at TED this week, which is extremely inspirational. What makes this event so invigorating is that it gives me an opportunity to challenge my engrained assumptions. I think small businesses — well, all firms — need to constantly refresh their thinking by asking themselves provocative questions. Are we executing this way simply because it's the way we’ve always done things? Businesses can’t afford to grow stale when the marketplace changes at a breakneck pace.

BIZTECH: Why do you blog?

CURRAN: I blog for many reasons. First and foremost, I am driven to share knowledge and best practices with my clients and colleagues. Sometimes it helps me to process my thinking around certain subjects. I also enjoy inspiring others, which I hope the blog does.

BIZTECH: What are the biggest challenges facing CIOs today?

CURRAN: The CIO is the only member of the executive team who is both a staff executive (providing support for all the other functions of the company, in a manner similar to the director of human resources) and a line executive (akin to a vice president of manufacturing). At many companies — banks, insurers and airlines — the CIO’s job is to run daily operations too. It’s this dual role of staff executive and line executive that confuses the goals and roles of the CIO.

Simultaneously, most firms are seeing a whole new wave of technology affecting marketing, service, sales, and brand. CIOs can have more influence than ever but they are torn in two different directions — diluting their power. CIOs must articulate their contribution to both the staff role and line role to their C-suite peers.

BIZTECH: What is the best way for CIOs to embrace and deal with BYOD?

CURRAN: I think most CIOs are already embracing BYOD, or at least they aren’t fighting the inevitable influx of devices. Now, they are grappling with how to put the policies and procedures in place to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks. Managing access to the network will be much easier than managing the people who are accessing the network, as always.

CIOs can employ new technologies like desktop virtualization, application virtualization and HTML5 to securely deliver content, but BYOD stirs up legal and human resources issues that CIOs haven’t had to deal with. BYOD blurs the lines between personal and business lives of employees like never before. CIOs will be challenged to strike the right balance between freewheeling and overbearing with their strategies to curtail the loss of trade secrets.

BIZTECH: What are three traits that the best CIOs embody?

CURRAN: Over the 12 years that I’ve been observing CIOs, I’ve realized that most CIOs carry a combination of three key traits (see below). Unfortunately, one or two of these traits are often dominant in one CIO.

Churn among CIOs is high because the traits of CIOs often don’t support the developmental stage of their companies. The best CIOs embody all three traits and can shift effortlessly between them depending on what their companies need at any given time.

  1. Strategist — very strong collaborator who brings innovative, often disruptive thinking to an enterprise; visual communicator; conceptual, not typically detail oriented
  2. Transformer — comfortable directing large portfolios of projects, both strategic and tactical; great team builder and communicator; develops and understands business cases
  3. Value Manager — comfortable optimizing IT processes and platforms; very good sense for IT efficiency and effectiveness; understands and applies benchmarks and frameworks such as CMMi and ITIL