IT bosses plot a course for success

At October's City IT and event, there was heady talk of deconstructing banks and launching an internal PR blitz. Rod...

At October's City IT and event, there was heady talk of deconstructing banks and launching an internal PR blitz. Rod Sweet reports

Deconstructing finance

The financial services companies that will survive the Internet Age will be the ones that take themselves apart. That was the prophecy of Benjamin Ensor, analyst with Forrester Research, to the delegates at City IT.

Everybody had things they didn't do very well, he went on to explain. A bank might be good at marketing but have mediocre products. Another might be a competent product developer but struggle to keep its IT systems ahead of the game. In the end, said Ensor, trying to do all things was an unsuccessful strategy that dragged down those internal departments that did shine.

This startling perspective is central to Ensor's view of the future of financial services. The best companies will be practitioners of what he calls "open finance" - with the two core competencies being the ability to specialise and to co-operate.

So what are the contours of this future? Ensor offers three example from the finance sector:

  • Currently, a bank is considered well connected if it has five or 10 partnerships. The model in the near future will be 40 to 50 partnerships a year, all rigorously assessed for the benefits they bring

  • At the moment data (customer information, for instance) is kept under lock and key. But data will undergo a devaluation, and companies will have to share and exploit it more opportunistically

  • Product boundaries will be destroyed. Student loans, credit cards, mortgages, insurance policies and so on will blend into and out of one another to match shifting customer demand and product-design skill

    Ensor believes four types of companies will emerge in the finance sector.

  • Attracters: companies that are particularly good at winning customers

  • Matchmakers: companies that can best match a customer to a product

  • Transformers: companies that design products better than anybody else

  • Enablers: companies with the technical and operational know-how to underpin the whole process of giving customers what they want

    Ensor's predictions are already coming true. Ron Karpovich, head of e-commerce operations at the Royal Bank of Scotland, is involved in creating an online platform for institutional investors in Europe. RBS has partnered with four other European banks to create this platform. Although the partners' roles don't perfectly match Ensor's four competencies, Karpovich says there are parallels, and that the team effort is necessary to offer the best service to the group's targeted customer base.

    Image conscious

    Does your electricity company phone you at home for chats? Does your gas supplier find out what makes you tick so it can be a more understanding gas supplier? The answer to both these questions is no. In utilities, if the service works, the provider fades discreetly into the background. So too should the IT department.

    That was the tersely argued point of one delegate during a City IT workshop called 'Breaking the glass ceiling: how to sell IT strategy to people who hate the very word.'

    The delegate had clearly suffered through the introductory remarks of presenter Jeremy Ashworth of the consultancy Wakeup. Ashworth's entire premise was that IT departments had to learn internal marketing skills. Otherwise, they would never bring IT into the heart of the organisation's strategy, or, to put it bluntly, get IT representation on the board.

    Ashworth responded with the following suggestions:

  • Learn the jargon of other departments to help break communication barriers

  • Show them you care - a tactic called 'smoothing and soothing', which can be deployed when you can't really do anything to fix an end-user's problem. Recipe: lashings of frank acknowledgement, add cooing noises to taste

  • Manage the expectations of internal customers to build IT's credibility

  • Create devices to raise the IT department's profile, such as broadcasting intermediate-level achievements The champion of the utilities model turned out to be in a minority - at least among the talkers in the workshop. One delegate pointed out diplomatically that the just-make-it-work approach was indispensable, but that it was indeed time to increase the profile of IT within organisations.

    Another surpassed Ashworth's enthusiasm for internal marketing and described efforts in his organisation that included 'speedboating' (achieving smaller, highly visible goals quickly in the oil-tanker environment of a big company) and 'hothousing' (a regular ideas session matching business goals to new technology).

    The utilities-model champion may not have wanted to break any glass ceilings, but he certainly broke the ice.

    "A password of eight characters will do... for two or three weeks." Sten Kalenda, ethical hacker, Megaplex "The war for talent is the only thing you should be afraid of as you leave this ship. Your most talented people will be the most inclined to leave." Leen Zevenbergen, CEO Escador Holding

    "We've got to reward people for making mistakes." Mark Tennant, senior VP, global funds services Europe, Chase Manhattan

    "We disintermediate our own business and, in so doing, control the process and disintermediate our competitors." Mark Tennant

    "Tuition money." Greger Hamilton, executive director FI group, Goldman Sachs International (on the heaps of cash burned by dot-coms that made the first mistakes)

    "Security agents do a background check. It is more intrusive than managers like." Greger Hamilton on the due diligence of a venture capitalist

    "Have you been important again today?" Attributed to the wife of Leen Zevenbergen, the former CEO of Origin Netherlands who at one time managed 6,500 employees, had his own driver, 10 personal staff and the occasional need of deflating at home

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