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Interview: Louise McCarthy and Valeria Della Rosa, EBRD

Two women are at the helm of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s technology change programme – the bank’s first-ever digital transformation

The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is in the midst of some big changes, in a quest to become a leaner and more flexible organisation.

But unlike most change programmes, this one stands out – it has two strong women pushing the technology agenda and trying to modernise the business.

Computer Weekly met Valeria Della Rosa, the bank’s director of operational effectiveness and efficiency for client services, and Louise McCarthy, director of IT transformation, for breakfast at the Devonshire Club, a stone’s throw from EBRD’s London headquarters.

Despite the early morning meeting, there is no sign of fatigue, rather an inexplicable amount of drive and energy, and it quickly becomes clear these women have more balls than most men.  

Such determination and leadership is exactly what the bank needs. The EBRD was set up at the end of the Soviet era as a sunset bank, originally to help the former Soviet states establish a flourishing private sector and a sustainable market economy.

Since then it has grown substantially and is now present in countries around the world. But as the bank has expanded its remit, IT has taken a back seat. Della Rosa says that because it was intended as a sunset bank, it “didn’t invest in infrastructure”.

“Particularly on the technology front, if you look at our core activities, what has happened is probably something common to a lot of institutions,” she says. “We’ve built a lot of applications, which means that our processes are not supported by technology end to end, which creates inefficiencies because, in general, we have a very low level of automation and this enforces siloed behaviours.”

McCarthy adds: “There’s a lot of sticky tape and plaster holding things together.  We are very much working to resolve that and trying to introduce technology that is really enabling for the business and facilitates leaner processes, more automated processes, and treating data as an asset to really drive business decisions.”

As a result, the two women are taking EBRD through its first-ever digital transformation – a big challenge for an institution founded on traditional values. 

Two brides and four grooms

“We got this big elephant in terms of the whole end-to-end, joined-up digital, online tool that we’re trying to build,” the women say enthusiastically. “We want to show the business that there is a way of doing this and it’s not difficult, it’s not painful, it’s not scary, and they’re going to joy it.”  

When it comes to digital transformation, the pair have gone about it in a very different fashion than most.

A few months ago, McCarthy, who has been with EBRD a little over a year, announced at a meeting that they were going to be innovative. Instead of going through a traditional tendering process, they went out to market and asked suppliers to build the first epics of the bank’s agile build, free of charge.

“People thought we were crazy and looked at us like we had two heads,” she said. “They thought it would never work.”

But it did. They went out with a pre-qualifying questionnaire (PQQ) and got 14 responses.

“It was almost like wedding planning with four grooms, because we accommodated four suppliers”
Valeria Della Rosa, EBRD

Della Rosa says that because EBRD had never done agile projects before, she and McCarthy wanted to show the bank that technology projects don’t have to take years, spending months “writing very heavy documentation on requirements”.

The pair settled on four suppliers, who were all invited to take part. “We mobilised a big part of the business – we had over 100 people participating in the various discovery sessions,” says Della Rosa.

“It was almost like wedding planning with four grooms, because we accommodated four suppliers.”

The suppliers engaged with EBRD on building the first epics, discovery, and show-and-tells for the business, highlighting the possibilities created by innovative ways of working.

“What has been interesting is that all four suppliers have really delivered on the requirements, but it is also interesting because they all bring slightly different nuances to the process,” says Della Rosa.

“It has been very demanding on us because we are working with four at the same time, but also quite enriching in terms of seeing the art of the possible.” 

McCarthy says the move has helped to engage the business, especially as the suppliers have also given free agile training to the business users on the job. But best of all, she says: “We’ve not paid a penny for it so far and we got four real, tangible assets. We got four builds of our first seven epics and we are finally on our digital journey.” 

Navigating challenges 

The team has managed to get the business on board, with board-level buy-in and support. But it hasn’t been all plain sailing. 

“It’s been tough,” says McCarthy. “People were wary and because they’d not seen it before, naturally they were nervous and resistant to change. We’ve had to find a way to bring them on board. It was very difficult, and it’s still going to be difficult all the way through our journey, but you bring people on board by doing things successfully and showing new ways of working.” 

The women are getting close to choosing one of the suppliers as their “husband” – and the winner takes it all. Although the cost savings have been great, more importantly, the exercise has ensured that there is a cultural fit between the bank and the suppliers, decreasing the project risk.

“It’s early days, but I think the whole approach of developing prototypes helps the engagement and the collaboration with business and IT, and it’s not the sort of traditional IT as a service,” says Della Rosa.

Read more financial sector interviews

The team’s focus on EBRD’s business needs, underpinned by technology, is already paying off, with staff taking an interest in how IT can help them in their roles.

“What we want to be able to do now is for the business to see how IT can actually drive the business forward rather than it just being for IT’s sake,” says McCarthy. “It’s the start of a journey now and once we have got the business to start trusting IT, we will become partners and help the business grow.”

The bank operates in more than 35 countries, and digital transformation at such a scale is no easy feat. This is only one of many projects in the organisation’s strategy, but all of them will be built on a digital and data framework in a common, agile way, and the benefits will soon be apparent. The other half of the puzzle is to look at the organisation itself and its IT target operating model.

“We are making sure we give the bank and the staff what they need in terms of the right technology”
Louise McCarthy, EBRD

“We are quite archaic in terms of the technology that we’ve been offering the bank,” says McCarthy. “So, as part of the IT target operating model, I have undertaken a study around what the business needs are. It is not one size fits all in terms of technology, digital, mobile and enabling the business to deliver services anywhere it needs to and any way it wants to.”

The bank may be a traditionalist, but as McCarthy puts it: “The world has moved on, technology has moved on, the structure has moved on, the way we need to deliver things to the business has moved on, so we need to look at that.”

Technology innovation shop

Della Rosa and McCarthy have broken the bank down into “person user groups”, which means that if an employee is in a certain type of role, he or she will need a certain type of technology.

“We are making sure we give the bank and the staff what they need in terms of the right technology,” says McCarthy. “As a result of that, we are launching our first “smart tech” genius bar to enable the business to learn more about technology.”

The pair are also launching “technology innovation of the future”, with a store frontage showcasing new technologies such as holographic receptionists, agile walls, drones and “magic mirrors” with which to interact with the bank’s regional offices.

“It’s launching some technology the bank hasn’t necessarily seen before, but also some technology for which we can show the use case,” says McCarthy. “So, for example, we are going to portray some of the proof-of-concepts on these technologies.”

Della Rosa says the idea is to show the organisation that “tech isn’t just gadgets”, but can actually move the business forward.

There is still a long way to go, and EBRD will not be transformed overnight. But with the dynamic duo of Della Rosa and McCarthy leading the change, it’s bound to happen sooner rather than later.

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I am sorry Computer Weekly, but you keep on writing articles on people who make a hash of things and get fired (as Louise McCarthy who has been kicked out of HMRC, Aviva, Specsavers, and now EBRD).  People like her, Phil Pavitt, her many times boss, Luise Holscher, her boss at EBRD, are a disgrace to the CIO profession and should not be quoted in your pages.
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