What’s on the minds of Australia’s banking and finance CIOs as 2008 approaches? Finding skilled and talented people to work for them, effective communication with the other business leaders, and, of course, going green.

Expressing their views at an Australian Banking and Finance Magazine forum in Sydney, the CIOs of Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the National Australia Bank, and the Bank of Queensland all face similar challenges in this new era of IT-dependent financial services.

Commonwealth Bank of Australia CIO Michael Harte didn’t mince words when asked how important people are to the success of his IT organization.

“The people make all the difference,” Harte said. “The test is how you invest in protecting and growing that particular asset. We’ve invested in a program of taking people to MIT helping them understand the importance of non-traditional learning as it relates to their IT career path.”

Harte said traditionally IT has been about managing big systems or big projects, where in fact a lot can be learnt by osmosis and not in a tertiary institution.

“What you do need to learn is how to deal with teams and how to motivate and retain them because motivating and retaining the existing employees you have is going to be the biggest defense in the war for talent,” he said. “People in IT need to understand importance of customer interactions. They haven’t been taught that at educational institutions.”

Harte believes Australia is a “fantastic” consumer of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) and is the most productive consumer among OECD nations because there is more focus on the human resource side than the development side and “I don’t know that that’s too bad a thing”.

“The more we get our IT people focused on the customer, on supporting the business, and developing the people, the more competitive we will be as an industry,” he said.

NAB CIO Michelle Tredenick said the IT industry went through a growth period seven years ago, and then into a lull, and “we are back into a growth period”.

“Throughout that, the issue of how to attract and retain talent and how to make people feel good about their work is an issue,” she said. “Talking to my team we talk about it a lot and it is a subject that is foremost on our mind.”

BOQ CIO Iain Blacklaw went a step further and declared the amount of time business leaders spend talking about people in some organizations is woeful. “Happy workers means happy customers, which means happy shareholders,” Blacklaw said.

“The amount of time I spend on people issues is nowhere near what it should be. We have a responsibility as IT leaders to shape out a large part of the agenda.”

Blacklaw expressed concern about the lack of investment that Australia makes into training and development, especially in IT.

“In the early 90s we hired a lot of people from Asia to support IT, but India is now churning out thousands of IT graduates and I don’t see that flow coming from our university system,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of smarts coming from the government in terms of investing in people in Australia. The industry is littered with projects that haven’t gone well because we put people onto projects who have no idea which end is up, but because they are available. We just don’t have the depth of capability in this country to deal with the things we have to deal with.”

Offshoring: Friend or Foe?

When the contentious topic of offshoring services was raised, NAB’s Tredenick set the record straight that is an option, not a panacea.

“I think offshoring is talked about in many ways and it is sometimes seen as a panacea, a bit like outsourcing was seen a while ago,” she said. “It’s sometimes seen as ‘something that’s not for us’, but the truth of the matter is that it’s no different to any other strategy I employ to deliver a return to the business.”

Tredenick said there are times when offshoring is the right thing to do and it’s an advantage to do it and there are times when it won’t work and should not be done at all.

“It’s a useful tool and one of an armament of tools around how business and IT executives need to gain competitive advantage and we don’t shy away from it being a very useful tool, but equally we’re not silly about when it does work and when it doesn’t work.”

“To me it’s just something that we will continue to work with and do things in, and I want to get over hype that offshoring is someway different to any other strategy we employ to make sure we are competitive and we deliver a return to the business.”

At the BOQ, Blacklaw believes offshoring cannot help any local skills shortage. “The hype around outsourcing could be about price, others say it’s about skills availability,” he said. “We are a relatively small bank and the return for us is negligible for the effort involved. The skills shortage in Australia is not being addressed by offshoring.”

Business, Meet IT

On internal relationships, the CIOs have all worked to ensure IT has a thorough understanding of the business requirements as well as promoting the importance of IT to the organization.

CBA’s Harte said the IT organization that is savvy and understands business and doesn’t just go out and “design its own thing” is going to create more value.

“Competitiveness and IT are inextricably intertwined,” he said. “We enable the business to compete, and the ability to get to market faster with a brand new product or service can mean win or lose. Anyone that is going to argue IT doesn’t deliver value needs to come up with something more convincing.”

NAB’s Tredenick believes an issue that can inhibit IT’s success in the business is when there is a relationship, a communication or education issue in terms of people understanding IT.

“The role of senior IT executive is very much about a pull strategy about technology,” she said, adding the art and skill of the CIO is doing that.

Tredenick sees low self-esteem as the other potential inhibitor to IT. “What can be incredibly inhibiting is a lack of confidence and belief that you not only have a right to be at the table but you are a positive contributor at the table,” she said.

When the BOQ went through a transformation some three years ago and replaced most of its applications the board sees it as job done, but IT must communicate that technology developments come in waves.

“I try to convey to the board it’s like the ocean: the next wave is coming and there is another wave after that,” Blacklaw said. “How do we frame what the next wave of technology investment is? I know the board will find it hard to digest another $40 to $50 million project.”

Greening IT

Not an IT gathering goes by without mention of sustainability and IT’s impact on the environment and the bank CIOs have it very much on their agenda.

CBA’s Harte said corporate and social responsibility and sustainability is “obvious” and there is a lot IT can do to educate consumers.

“We just invested in a state-of-the-art green data center and [do] simple things like making sure computers are powered down,” he said. “Rather than grandstanding it and making massive headlines it’s really just good daily responsible practice.”

NAB’s Tredenick said the bank has made an “incredible commitment” and it has come about because the people are craving the need to act responsibly in the world and have created a groundswell of opinion.

“It started in the technology area as well as the business,” she said. “We made a commitment to be carbon neutral and there would not be a day at work that doesn’t go past without me in some sort of conversation about it.”

At BOQ energy efficiency is not an IT issue, it’s a business issue, according to Blacklaw.

“Clearly IT as a consumer of power is a focus [and] there are very few organizations that have an enterprise-view of how to handle greenhouse gas or climate change,” he said.

SOA: Buzzword or Bonanza?

BOQ’s Blacklaw made the joke that SOA is “a buzz-word for consultants to sell stuff to us”, but CBA’s Harte was more philosophical about granular services.

“If you look at the underlying value of high-speed interactions it’s about being able to do that very flexibly because no two customers are alike,” Harte said. “So if business logic is hard-coded into systems you cannot get a lot of flexibility.”

Harte believes service orientation is trying to “rapidly impose” new standards on how to make logic really granular and how you make data assets more accessible.

“The hard thing is getting people who have never done it before to figure it out and to do it faster than the next organization. The people that make their services flexible and modular are going to win.”

CIO: Career Is Orchestration

When asked how relevant the CIO is the organization, Tredenick summed it up nicely by saying the job is the most complex, but also the most rewarding.

“I can’t remember the last time I was analytical or action-oriented, or in IT operations or strategically focused, I think a CIO is every single one of those,” she said, adding she can’t recall a time when that hasn’t been the case.

“The CIO as a technician or analyst is an old question because in reality my role is blending what technology can do and explaining what technology can do which is such an important part of the role. Making sure you have the talent and the partners is not the role of a technician, it’s the role of a master strategist.”

Tredenick said the CIO is a master orchestrator of communication, of learning, of operations, and of strategy.

“I don’t think there is a more complex job. It’s the hardest job but also the most rewarding job.”

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