Financial IT workers implement leading-edge technology to complement the business

Over the coming months Computer Weekly will profile the IT departments that have made it on to our shortlist of the Best Places...

Over the coming months Computer Weekly will profile the IT departments that have made it on to our shortlist of the Best Places to Work in IT 2003. Through feedback from IT managers and their staff, our aim is to celebrate the best employers of IT professionals and highlight employment best-practice for other IT departments to follow. This week we profile financial services organisations

Friends Provident

Number of IT staff: 440
Annual staff turnover: 8.9%
IT training budget per head: £2,800
Amount of new development work: 50%
Annual holiday: 20-26 days

What impressed the judges?
Financial services group Friends Provident is a member of the FTSE 100 group of top companies on the Stock Exchange. It sees its use of technology as a key differentiator to attract customers in a very competitive market.

It has always been keen to be at the leading edge when applying technology to business problems. Perhaps the greatest accolade was winning the 2000 BCS prize for the use of IT in delivering an internet system to support stakeholder pensions. 

The group moves forward on the technology front with its soon to be released web-based system for independent financial advisers to submit e-proposals. It will include online underwriting and document production at the financial advisers’ offices.

One IT team member said, “Our role is to develop technology as an enabler for others. These include a move to Exchange from our old Memo system, replacement of Smartsuite with MS Office, an internal time recording and cost apportioning system and various development toolkits.”

It is certainly not a case of technology for its own sake. “There is a belief in the importance of our work – not a blind belief in technology, but in the ability of the department to use it to deliver systems Friends Provident requires to reach its business goals,” she said.

Accordingly, there is an emphasis on helping individuals do their best through appraisals, objective setting and reviews. “People are encouraged to ‘have a go’ and managers look for opportunities for people to learn. There is active performance management and people are rewarded for their contribution,” she added.

Another IT staff member sees this as reflecting the values of the whole group. “Our company really believes in its staff and encourages them to act on the corporate values which are: every customer counts; integrity in all we do; co-operate to achieve; take personal responsibility; value people; and deal fairly,” he said.

“Because of these factors, I have stayed in the Friends Provident IT department for more than 20 years, and many of the people I work with are my best friends.

“Also, our onsite facilities [sports and social club] and flexitime make it very easy to socialise and become good friends with colleagues.”

However, the encouragement of excellence does not mean everyone is expected to be perfect all the time. “Mistakes will always happen, but the view within the department is that rather than blame somebody, we should look at mistakes and learn from them,” said a team member.

That is just as well as the group is in the throes of major change. “Our management team are not afraid to advocate major change if it is required. For example, we are in the middle of a huge move to a more commercial model,” she added.

Birmingham Midshires

Number of IT staff: 76
Annual staff turnover: 1.3%
IT training budget per head: £2,000
Amount of new development work: 60%
Annual holiday: 31 days

What impressed the judges?
Birmingham Midshires provides a range of specialist lending, savings and insurance products. Based in Wolverhampton, it employs over 2,000 people and manages assets in excess of £11bn. It is part of the HBOS banking group.

The past six years have seen the IT department move from a range of isolated systems to a fully integrated IT platform, featuring an internet-based point-of-sale and processing system and a customised administration system, all integrated through XML and message queuing.

One IT employee said, “We used the right technology in the right place to deliver the biggest benefit. The results are all around us. The business has grown massively without expanding our headcount.”

Another employee agreed, “A key element in our success is that while we embrace new technologies, we do not use them unless they have a business or a performance benefit and have proven security and robustness.”

The effective application of IT is clearly visible in the group’s websites: and “In our BM Solutions website we have used a number of technologies to produce the best possible solution,” said one team member. 

The site is built on a Windows 2000 platform and uses Microsoft technologies to communicate with internal systems and the company’s mainframe and external systems.

“By picking the right technologies and writing our components in the right manner we can securely take customer details online, run a credit check, do a risk assessment and give a decision while the customer or broker is waiting,” he said.

Alignment with the business is a top priority for the IT team. Another team member said, “We have changed from being a department that dictated what the business could do into one that listens to its needs.”

The business plays its part in this through a commitment to open communication. “A fantastic working environment is achieved by open communication from the top down. The management has adopted an ‘open door’ policy.  Employees at all levels are encouraged to air their views and they are taken on board,” he said.

That openness is borne out on the AskBM website – how many corporate websites do you know where the directors publish their home telephone numbers?

The real cause of high morale in the department is knowing the team is doing a great job and is being recognised. As one team member said, “The department has built a good reputation within HBOS. We are renowned for delivering high quality systems within tight deadlines and for offering a first-rate support structure for existing systems.

 “This is achieved by a close-knit working environment in which we all get on well and have a mutual respect for each other’s ability to get the job done.”

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