In the service of our new series on CIO innovators, I spoke this morning with IT executive Peter Breunig at Chevron Corp. about the American energy company’s approach to IT innovation. Chevron is making a few “big IT bets” this year, said Breunig, who is its general manager of technology management and architecture. A new data center is one. The multinational behemoth, with operations in some 180 countries, also will double down on content management, he said; and oh, yes, Chevron is determined to tackle mobility.
But the initiative that will have the biggest effect on IT innovation, in his view? That would be upward mobility. Recently, Chevron separated the IT planning and strategy group, or management track, from the technology and architecture group. The aim of the breakup, Breunig told me, is to provide IT people who aspire to be technical experts with a way forward other than getting on the management track — or for that matter, other than leaving for a Google, IBM or some other technology stronghold where their IT smarts are more likely to be rewarded. The challenge for current management is figuring out “how we make that a viable, robust career path,” he said.
Breunig brought up another, more modest change that he believes is already having a positive effect on IT innovation. He recalled that when he first joined the architecture group, he was taken aback by the hangdog look (I’m paraphrasing) of his IT staff. A geophysicist by training, Breunig was used to the rock star status –or at least the rock star egos–of the hotshot scientists in Chevron operations. What was it with these IT experts who mumbled through a six-slide PowerPoint about their latest technology feats? He launched a seminar series to showcase IT initiatives, and invited people from Chevron’s various technology groups to attend. “I learn about IT technologies,” he said, and the IT people get to show off what they know.
After I got off the phone, I realized that Chevron’s quest to boost IT innovation — by celebrating the achievements and boosting the egos of its IT experts — is a corporate twist on the raging debates unleashed by Yale law professor Amy Chua, better known as Tiger Mom. Her new book is a condemnation of Western child-rearing practices, and Chua, judging from her take on why Chinese mothers are superior, seems firmly in the camp that insists achievement is the path to self-esteem. Or does it work in the opposite way? As ex-Harvard President Larry Summers (another academic whose provocative comments about ability and achievement caused an uproar) put it in his recent match-up with Tiger Mom at Davos: Is achievement the route to self-esteem, or self-esteem the route to achievement? A conundrum, no doubt, worthy of Confucius.
I’m kind of heartened by the uproar caused by the book –and even more by hearing that these sorts of questions are being mulled over even in hyper-successful companies like Chevron. If nothing else, it shows how passionately Americans still care about the path to success and, more important, how much we still are willing to question how to get there.