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Mobile application development tops CIO strategies

Cloud computing was unavoidable -- of course -- but CIOs at this year's Society for Information Management conference were keener on mobile application development strategies.

More than 1,000 IT executives converged on Atlanta last week for the annual SIMposium conference, where cloud computing was a hot topic -- of course. The buzz, however, centered on mobile application development. met up with Patricia Coffey, vice president of technology at Allstate Insurance Co. and president of the Society for Information Management (SIM), and learned why she thinks mobile is on everyone's mind, how to start developing a mobile strategy, and of course, the trends and technology that are having the most effect on the role of the CIO and IT.

Patricia Coffey
Patricia Coffey

You have insights into a wide cross section of IT leaders who belong to SIM. What are the top topics of conversation?
Coffey: One topic, which I'm tired of talking about, is cloud. That is the hype. Everyone's trying to figure out what is it, am I going to use it, who's doing it first. Another one is offshore outsourcing, which is up. We've been having a lot of discussions around what is the right balance there. Have we done too much, or not enough? What's our succession of talent, because we have a talent drain in IT. In colleges, there aren't as many computer science majors because they don't believe there are jobs; and how do you get a CIO if all of your entry-level jobs are offshore? So, there's this "Hmm, what's the consequences of that?" How do we develop talent and start to encourage more kids to go into the profession? Jobs may not be the same jobs that we did, but there will be jobs. At least, I believe that, although some people are questioning that.

Talking to people at the show and on our CIO advisory board, mobile application development has really become front and center. Is there a perfect storm coming together?
Coffey: My hypothesis is that this is kind of like a mini Internet. It's a matter of so you can/so we will, and then we'll figure out what actually made sense. It's pretty easy to do, it's relatively cheap, all of my competitors are doing it, I'd better get out there or I'm old and stodgy. We don't know what the value is, but it's not costing me a whole lot of money to do it. It's relatively simple because maybe I'm taking the things I already do and slapping it on another form factor.

What we're not doing yet, although some people are starting to do some of things like location-based apps, but we're not fully taking advantage of all the capabilities of the fact that I am mobile. That, to me, is what will start to fill out, in one or two years maybe. We'll start to look back at mobile, like we did with the Internet. One day it was in a lab and people were trying to put a browser on it; the next thing you knew, we were doing major business on it. We skipped pretty quickly to business on mobile. What we haven't done is taken advantage of it.

How do you see SIM members' mobile application development strategies coming together?
Coffey: We've had some businesses come in to talk [to members] who said, don't just put your Web on the mobile. They showed some unique things going on in the mobile space, in which people were building apps that were truly taking advantage of the fact that your physical location plays a factor. In Allstate we did what we called an app attack. It was a way to get people engaged, and we had a contest in which people came in on their own time, and we gave them mobile application development training. They came in with their ideas, and they prototyped or built mobile applications, some of which we'll use.

It's a great way to create innovation in your shops. It's kind of like how IBM does the idea jams: We did idea blitzes. We took it to the next step where, instead of just the idea blitz, we're going to have people build their apps. We said, here's the rules and time frame; and we got some incredible things back.

Are you going to use any of those mobile applications as a business tool?
Coffey: That part I can't talk about; but to give you an idea of location-based coming into play, we have a campus where the buildings are far apart and we have a shuttle that goes around the campus. Someone developed an application that lets you see your location, how close the bus is, at what time the bus will be at which location. Then they put a carbon counter on it to tally the carbon offset of you taking the shuttle versus driving your car, and you can compete with people on a carbon offset.

So, it's just a fun little idea; but the point of it is, that's a couple of more people who now know how to build a mobile app, and don't think they're not going to think about more ways of doing it. Now they're going to think about how to apply it to other parts of our business.

There's a lot of talk about how the role of the CIO and IT is changing. Some believe IT will no longer be a silo but embedded in business units; others believe IT will take on a vendor-management role for both internal and external services. How do you see the role of IT changing?
Coffey: We've done this centralized, decentralized thing many times. We started with some centralized, big systems in which everyone does accounts payable the same way. Then all of a sudden it was, "We can innovate out here by giving business units all of their IT so they can do what they want." Then we came back and said, "How do I take all that data from all those different places and pull it back together, because I can't get any insight because it's all over the place." Now I need to figure out how to bring it back together because I can compete better, and I can get scale and many other benefits when I bring it together.

We skipped pretty quickly to business on mobile. What we haven't done is taken advantage of it.

Patricia Coffey, president, SIM; vice president of technology, Allstate

What I'm hearing is ... about being embedded in the business, which is almost a bit of a repeat of what we've done before, is [about] back to the edge is where innovation happens. You generally don't innovate in the middle. That said, maybe it's a new model that says it's a combination of the two, and maybe that's why the hybrid, federated model is starting to get such uptick in [SIM] studies. Maybe because you don't get insight out there or a magnitude to watch for patterns, but you do get insight into how that local unit behaves differently than another one. So, maybe you need a combination of the two.

So you see IT becoming more of a data aggregator?
Coffey: Clearly, I see that being a huge piece of it.

What other trends or buzzwords do you see taking hold?
Coffey: The new buzzword, which I've only heard used once here [at the conference], is insight. It used to be data, then it was information, now it is insight because data isn't anything unless it's information, which people thought was knowledge; but now it's insight because I want to learn something that you don't know. It's like the aha!

Given that you're hearing that insight is the next phase, is business intelligence taking on a more important role?
Coffey: It is taking on a more important role. Where I think the mess is, is we're trying to look at things like structured data and unstructured data. We're trying to create models for things we don't know. We want to get insight that hasn't existed before, create models based on what we do know, which is kind of an oxymoron. I want to be very specific about creating this data model so that everything fits neatly in the slots, but I want to look for something new.

So there's ... do I want to run an operation and see what's going on there and respond more quickly? Well, that's pretty traditional and I might need some new tools; and maybe I can do it on a grander scale with some of the BI [tools], so maybe it's about responding faster. But if I want new knowledge, then I need to combine things in new and unique ways, and how can someone tell me how to do that? If I told you how to do it, it wouldn't be an insight.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, News Director.

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