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How Chevron is building a pipeline of IT leaders focused on innovation

How is one of the world's largest energy companies fostering IT innovation? By letting IT leaders know it's OK to focus on technology, according to Peter Breunig, general manager of technology and architecture at Chevron Corp.

What is one of the world's largest energy companies doing to foster IT innovation? For starters, it is letting IT leaders know that it's not only OK to be a geek but also a good career move. As part of our CIO Innovators series, checked in with Peter Breunig (left, below), general manager of technology and architecture at Chevron Corp., for his latest thinking on the IT leader's role in innovation. Speaking from the Innovation Value Institute annual North American summit in Toronto, Breunig gave us the low-down on Chevron's effort to keep its best and brightest techies and on where the company is making its biggest technology bets this year. The gravest challenge for IT groups, in his view? How to remain relevant to the business as information technology becomes easier and easier to use. Here is a condensed version of our interview.

Peter Breunig
Peter Breunig What is the IT leader's role in innovation?
The first thing we did was separate the technology and architecture -- my group if you will -- from strategy, planning and budgeting. By doing that, we ended up with a sizeable group of people who focus on emerging technologies, be they in the application, data or infrastructure space.

From an IT leadership point of view, that was important because it let the IT population know that there is a path for the technical expert. So, if you come up through the infrastructure group and you are working on servers and you aspire to become a technical expert rather than go the management track, there is a path. Is it the yellow brick road? No, but at least there is a path now, and there is an aiming point for people who want to focus on a technical career.

And the benefit of having that separate track for people who want to focus on a technical career is that they have the assurance they can rise pretty high in the organization by being IT experts?
That is the idea. You spoke to Jack Anderson [program manager for Global Innovation Services] last year about IT innovation at Chevron. He is working on a project for me called IT leadership. In corporations that are not IT corporations, the chances of an IT person being CEO are pretty slim. If you ask IT people, they would probably think they could only get to a certain level, when in reality the career ladder goes higher than that. How do we make that a realistic thing? You've got to start promoting people and targeting people, and have career development plans that are specific.

We have three main technology companies in Chevron. We have the IT company. We have a tech ventures company, which is a small company which invests in things that will affect Chevron's business. They are not there to make money like a venture capital firm; they are there to spark innovation in other technologies that will help Chevron's business. The third company is the energy technology company, which is about the same size as the central IT company; and their job is all the technologies that you need in an energy company, such as earth science, reservoir engineering, deep water drilling, drilling [and] facilities engineering.

That challenge that you just mentioned is a challenge in those groups too. How do you make sure you have career paths? One of the concerns is that really good technical people will learn fairly quickly that if there is no path, they should branch off into management. And then you might lose some of that innovation over time, because they are worrying about people instead of worrying about technology.

Or go to Google or IBM?

What technology or technology trend is causing Chevron's IT leaders to rethink the company's IT architecture?
Our company this year has two or three big bets within our IT function to run IT better. Those are around our data center, content management -- SharePoint and that kind of stuff. The third one that is emerging is, what are we going to do about mobility? Now, those are sort of the utility things. In the business-enabled IT area, we have some big bets on standardizing our data stores around drilling, production allocation and some of the other major areas, and on having a platform for supply and trading. Those are technical things that we are focusing on this year.

The biggest change for me that is coming in IT is the idea that in the future, the value of the IT function is not going to be one-to-one with the value of IT. By which, I mean that technologists in other parts of the business are going to have IT as a nasty habit more and more. And the value of the IT function from our group may go down, as the value of IT per se goes up, because the embedded IT-business stuff is going to be done by those people in those functions. So, how do we, as an IT group, hire for and remain relevant to those people to support their business? That to me is a big change, driven by technologies that are easier and easier to use.

And your answer?
Hiring practices, valuing the technical IT experts. You are still going to need technical experts, whether you put everything out to the cloud or whatever. You are still going to need IT experts who know how to do these things smartly. You may leverage more on the outside; you may not in different areas.

Another part of the answer is that we have gone to meet with different groups upstream -- the Society of Petroleum Engineers, for example, and talked to the professors, saying, "Please teach your students something about information management, so that when they come to work, they understand the value of taking care of their information." We also need training programs within our company that turn competent IT people into IT leaders with earth science as a nasty habit, if you will, or engineering as a nasty habit. It's a journey. We are going to have to do that internally because that is not going to happen outside.

Back to those three technology game-changers: data center, content management and mobility. Which do you think is going to have the biggest effect on how your IT leaders run IT at Chevron?
I think our main business is presenting information to make good decisions, and reducing uncertainty in risky decisions. In my mind, that is the IT organization's charge. Whether it is through a BlackBerry or coming off a server, that is our job. So, I could say, all three of them. We have to have a strong core of data centers and servers and all that, so that we can take advantage of the cloud in the future when that makes sense. We had better start taking care of our information better. We do, but we need to keep doing it better. And the presentation method is going to change. It is going to move from desktops to laptops, to tablets. to smartphones, to wherever you are. And probably the biggest challenge in that is going to be security. How do you get to a point where everybody in the corporation is their own little independent security zone, and can get into the data they need to see when you are a company that deals in 120 countries and you have joint ventures everywhere?

CIO Innovators

The CIO Innovators profile series highlights how CIOs use technology to meet both IT and business leadership objectives. To suggest a leader for a future CIO Innovator profile, email

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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