The Grill: Chris Curran on 'The Year of the CIO'

PwC's chief technologist says CIOs ought to be primed to take on dual roles.

For all you CIOs out there, PricewaterhouseCoopers principal Chris Curran has a message: This is your year. Curran, who also serves as chief technologist for the U.S. business consulting firm's advisory practice, called 2013 "The Year of the CIO" in one of his recent CIO Dashboard blog posts. This turning point for the CIO job is just one of the trends that Curran sees. He says CIOs must be ready to harness the power of a slew of technologies if they want to say competitive. Here Curran offers insight into his vision for IT through 2013 and beyond.

PwC has released its "2013 Top 10 Technology Trends for Business." Which of those trends are CIOs best positioned to make the most of? Pervasive computing is one that has a lot of traction and continues to have a lot of opportunities. We call it that because calling it smartphones or apps or mobile is too limited. Pervasive computing captures not just smartphones and apps and tablets but the opportunities emerging around individual devices. The pervasive computing trend is going to keep getting traction once enterprises get beyond the BYOD, the governance, the financial side of providing devices, and move into providing business applications in the mobile context. Once the platform -- the phone, the management of the phone, security -- is settled, it's "What do we do with this beyond email and calendar and the simple stuff?" That's probably the biggest opportunity.

Why is 2013 the year of the CIO? The last couple of years we've talked about the dual role of the CIO, the traditional role and a value-creating role of the CIO -- driving new business, new products and services into the marketplace. And the reason I say it's a turning point for CIOs is we're seeing several different outlets calling for an explicitly new role -- a chief digital officer -- I've heard other names for it -- that is trying to address this second role, this market-facing role. Because of this additional focus, it might be the time when CIOs finally get to make the case for taking both roles. It's an opportunity for CIOs to say, "See all that stuff they're talking about? That's my job, and here's why."

Are most CIOs up for making their case? Yes. Many CIOs are champing at the bit to bring the business more impactful and innovative ideas.

What is the biggest challenge facing CIOs this year? With all the discussions surrounding these emerging technology topics like mobility and social media, one of the big challenges is not to get caught up in the individual technology hype or the collection of these technologies, thinking these are going to solve my problems and I have to get them ASAP. One of the biggest challenges is to stay focused on the business needs and not the individual technologies.

Isn't that a lesson most CIOs already know? Many have learned this, but some can't do it on a regular basis because their business planning cycles don't include the IT planning piece early enough. [Others in the business] don't let IT help from the beginning and let IT help make the best decisions.

What is the single biggest area that CIOs need to be mindful of? Figuring out the mobile development standard for the organization is something they need to jump on, whether it's device-specific or something like HTML5, which is platform-agnostic.

You've written in your blog about CIOs breaking out of the "IT department mindset." How do you define that? The IT department mindset is that IT is largely or solely a support function. That's the old mentality. Most organizations are figuring out how to make IT a strategic creator of value. Some industries, like the large heavy manufacturing companies, think [IT is just a support function], and their mission is just to run efficiently and they just need IT to support that. But most of the clients I deal with are trying to figure out how to play both roles. Most CIOs get that, but in many organizations it's hard for them to do. And some of it requires pull-through from the CEO or others on the C-team.

What emerging technology are you personally most excited about? I think the next wave of things that we'll see is around sensors and more and varied types of purpose-built computers that people can wear or [that we can] put on a car or package. We'll see more small-scale computing that captures data, tracks positions or activities -- and [we'll see it] in a lot more parts of business. There are devices that clip to your pocket that take pictures every 30 seconds or that you wear and track your activity. We're going to see more and more of that. I think it's more about the ability to get new types of data that can more specifically allow us to learn about our environment, our products, our customers. It's bringing more refined, customized data to the table.

As someone who's seemingly immersed in technology, do you ever worry about how wired we're becoming as a society? I think emailing when they're down the hall, instant messaging, texting has helped us to be lazier about building relationships and a lot of this C-level relationship-building. It worries me that we have so much technology-mediated communication.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (marykpratt@verizon.net)

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