Accenture CIO Modruson Is Not Just Putting Out Fires

Accenture CIO Frank Modruson is surrounded by IT experts, but the part-time firefighter still finds time to think about new approaches to collaboration

Being an IT leader is tough enough at the best of times, but what do you do when your company is stacked with IT experts? 'Make the most of it' would appear to be the attitude of Frank Modruson, CIO of Accenture, one of the world's biggest management consulting, technology services and outsourcing companies.

"It's interesting: there are 180,000 experts on my job here," he quips, referring to the total size of Accenture's workforce. He also has 3500 staff working for him. "That leads to feedback and scrutiny, and that's good. The educated consumer puts you in good stead. They challenge you as long as you're willing to try things. I get to leverage this capability."

That feedback can lead to some unforeseen insights taking place.

"It's wonderful when people point out the forest from the trees," Modruson says, speaking by phone from his Chicago office. "The other day I said to somebody 'Have you seen the new printers?' He said: 'I don't print so I haven't used them yet. We have no business transactions that require paper. We can just look at [documents] on a PC'."

Americans like to talk about 'eating their own dog food' as a metaphor for consuming their own products and services, and Accenture is no exception.

"All of our advice is applicable to us. We're a large customer of Accenture ourselves and we use the Global Delivery Network [a collection of experts and facilities for developing consistent methodologies, tools and architectures] for outsourcing."

He is also a big advocate of the kinds of metrics consulting firms like to apply in order to demonstrate IT value. The old chestnut of the business says that if the automotive industry had developed as fast as computers we'd all be driving US$25 cars that provided 1000 miles per gallon. Even if the current trend is not inclining quite so sharply, Modruson feels his company is still getting exponentially better value than in the past.

"If I look at the base metrics, we have better technology for less money than in 2001. We spent fewer dollars in 2008 than in 2001 to support a company with twice the people and almost double the revenues, and the feedback is that we're better."

But what of Modruson's current big projects? A major focus for Accenture's IT today surrounds what he calls "Collaboration 2.0" and involves a hefty component of concepts taken from social networking tools and then applied within the Accenture firewall to ensure security.

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Modruson says the company has created an "integrated toolset for instant messaging, email, voice and video, along with knowing people's presence".

"It's really cool. I was working with a company on the east coast and we had got together to have a coffee in Starbucks and did a video session with a colleague in Chicago," he says.

Sharing knowledge

Another collaboration project involves a knowledge management system that is a "Facebook equivalent" where users can post pictures of themselves and list areas of expertise. According to Modruson, the system is already paying dividends.

"There was a manager in London that needed some skills in digital asset management," he reports. "Within minutes he'd found the expert and within an hour they were talking."

Other projects include Media Exchange (a "YouTube for Accenture"); a shared storage utility called Big File Send that takes the weight off the corporate email system; a utility for helping users get the most out of Microsoft Outlook; a social bookmarking website; a virtual org chart; a wiki for Accenture; and even an application called Percenture that tells staff the percentage of people who have joined after them. What is most remarkable is the speed at which these tools are being used.

"It's interesting feedback. I told two people about [Percenture] and within days 3000 people had used it. It was shooting about the company," Modruson says.

Another push under the collaboration umbrella is in videoconferencing, where Accenture uses tools including Microsoft RoundTable for telepresence systems in 13 locations, with 20 more coming and more planned after that. Here, experience has shown that boldness in adding nodes leads to exponential increases in utilization.

"It's Metcalfe's Law," he says, recalling 3Com founder Robert Metcalfe's rule that the value of a network grows in proportion to the square of the number of users. "When we had two nodes we had low utilization but when we added 10 more..."

Modruson says that conferencing systems offer a huge human advantage, relating the story of a recent conference between Chicago and Frankfurt.

"I had to get in the office early [for the conference session] but normally I would have flown the day before and basically spent three days there for a one-hour meeting, and suffered jetlag."

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Such systems can also help IT justify budgets, he believes. "There's always pressure to do more for less but the flipside for finance is that IT can take cost out of the business. Anything you operate you should push down on. Telepresence drives down cost of travel and takes people off planes, which is wearing on them, and helps in reducing our carbon footprint."

As for the CIO role, Modruson is sanguine about what it means and the value proposition to the company, and is not keen on suggestions that the CIO title could morph into something different that reflects new requirements.

"I'm not a big one for name changes. You don't want to do it more than you have to. You could have changed the title a dozen times and it would have been a mess-up. It's become a pretty good name [although] the title can always use some improvement. It's come to mean information and infrastructure capabilities of technology. Technology is the lifeblood of any organization and it's the conduit that is increasingly important. IT is there to serve the business and you really need to see what the business wants. "I report to the COO [Stephen Rohleder]. It varies by company but I'm comfortable with [that line] and I'm reporting to the right place to be effective."

While there is an ongoing debate over the next opportunity for CIOs -- to become COO or even CEO, for example -- Modruson has no such ambition. "I have the best job in the company," he says. "I have a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. I like technology and I feel that I've been training for this role for many years. I'm having a blast."

Modruson also is a conservative when it comes to the future of IT and the CIO role, downplaying suggestions that IT will quickly become a commodity and the CIO role will be obviated.

"When we get 100-volt AC [for computing] maybe that happens," he says with an air of cynicism, adding that technology trends tend not to be predictable or have any clear cadence.

Changing trends

"Five years ago we weren't talking about YouTube or Facebook; in a few years there will be more trends and I don't know what they are. I don't think anybody sitting there now [as CIO] will feel the need to go away. In 15 years, it's possible. I've been doing IT since the 1980s and it's changed dramatically. We had the year of the LAN. Then we had the internet. I put the first node on the internet in 1987 but nobody knew about it, then it exploded in the Nineties. I look at IT and it's here to stay, and is very strategic to companies."

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But what of other trends that threaten the old-style CIO domain, such as offshoring and outsourcing generally? Modruson doesn't see that having a big impact on the relevance of the role and counters that the greater need for digital security is making the CIO role even more important.

"Eighty to 85 percent of our IT is outsourced, mostly to Accenture. In reality, that [CIO] role is not diminished. Your job is to work out the best IT for your company. As technology becomes more pervasive we have to make sure it's not abused. So you spend more time on IT risk. Five years ago it was security, worms and viruses, but we blocked a billion spam messages last month. It's amazing."

What happens next in the CIO role could involve more input from other areas of the business and vice-versa.

"We're seeing more CIOs come from the business, as a rotational stop or to bring that outside knowledge to IT," Modruson says.

"I spent 15 or 16 years consulting so I didn't grow up in the IT, I grew up in the business. The CIO gets to touch a lot of parts of the business. I think you'll see more of that as technology becomes more important."

That ability to look across business silos could be used at executive level to create a strategic advantage, Modruson contends.

"Very few companies have boards of advisors with technology backgrounds," he notes. "I find that interesting. I don't think the board should be composed of technologists but to have one is useful."

And as a leading CIO himself, Modruson has a thirst for both learning and teaching.

"We become a role model for our clients. I present on what's on the mind of a CIO, front and center. Any CIO needs to understand the bits and bytes but CIOs are business people and the language of the business is finance. I also get out and talk to two or three CIOs a week, generally in one-on-one conversations that I find best. I also meet CIOs at events and client meetings. Any CIO will take a call from any other CIO."

That appetite for networking helps keep Modruson fresh for the next challenge, as do outside interests such as his role as a voluntary fireman and a love of opera and fly fishing.

"I sleep pretty well," he says when quizzed about stress levels of CIOs. "I only worry about developing people enough. You're only as good as the team around, you and I have a great team."