Interview: Standard Life ensures sharper focus on IT revamp

In his first interview as technology chief at the Edinburgh-based insurer Standard Life, Christian Torkington tells Computer Weekly about his transformation agenda.

In his first interview as technology chief at the Edinburgh-based insurer Standard Life, Christian Torkington tells Computer Weekly about his transformation agenda.

Christian Torkington has been busy since joining Standard Life from rival RSA four months ago in a newly created role, which consolidates the IT and operations role as well as change to support the firm's growth strategy.

The company announced a 10% rise in operating profits in its half-year results and added that its ongoing transformation plan is generating efficiencies and further capital will be invested to fuel expansion.

In 2010, the company will be spending more than £200m to market its retail proposition - with IT representing a "good lot of it", according to Torkington, who has been developing a comprehensive blueprint across his areas of responsibility to drive a customer-centric approach and respond to changing business needs.

Organisational review

One of Torkington's first actions from an IT standpoint was to assess the firm's technology capability and hiring Mark Dixon, a former IBM executive, as the firm's first ever chief technology officer was an important part of the plan.

"[Dixon's appointment] reflects the increasing importance of technology in our business, the desire to take IT to a higher level and accelerate our thinking around that area, so there is a conscious up-scaling around technology leadership," says Torkington.

"The other big theme in terms of organisational capability is aligning IT function around strategic change. In the past, there was a strong process-driven organisation with a great emphasis on service delivery - the challenge is more swinging around enabling strategic change for the business and at a greater volume than we have done previously," he says.

According to Torkington, the IT team now benefits from improved governance structures and greater clarity over what the various areas of the department are doing to deliver change "rather than simply delivering technology".

No redundancies have been made as a result of the new strategy, says Torkington, adding that there is "a lot of work to be done" and significant hiring activity has taken place both on the permanent and contract fronts.

Outsourcing arrangements are being reviewed to ensure that skills demand is met. IBM does a sizeable chunk of IT work for Standard Life in areas ranging from infrastructure to consulting, while Indian supplier L&T Infotech provides development services.

"Given that we are increasing investment, our primary concern is to ensure we have the capability to hand to deliver. We have put in a lot of work in getting a more granular view of [third-party work] so we can have better supplier management resourcing," says Torkington.

"We are also doing demand forecasting on project activity coming up, so we can start to anticipate the demand for skills - I don't want to be waiting until I am faced with the project demand to put sourcing arrangements in place," he says.

Web focus

Standard Life hopes technology innovation and process improvement will further enhance its customer experience and bring in efficiency savings of £100m by 2012, while keeping pace with a fast-developing insurance sector.

"The business appetite for change has dramatically increased. In addition, there is the retail distribution review, regulatory changes such as Solvency II and new market entrants using technology differently - there are fundamental changes taking place in our industry and we are responding to that," says Torkington.

Examples of current projects include the development of a new investment service, which will be launched initially with the firm's intermediaries and seek to provide a better user experience. Consumer websites are also being evolved, as well as the underlying architecture, which is intended to become more scalable and standardised.

De-merging the IT supporting Standard Bank and the firm's healthcare division, which were sold over the past 12 months, is also underway.

Innovating carefully

When it comes to hyped technologies such as software-as-a-service (SaaS), Torkington says that while he is open to the approach - Standard Life uses Sun SaaS products - he not pushing that agenda.

"We are using SaaS but are not aggressively driving into that space. At the same time, I am not saying we won't do it either. [Such approaches] must meet business needs and corporate standards such as security architecture, but within that nothing is ruled out," he says.

Like many financial services organisations, Standard Life does not tend to be an early adopter of technology, preferring to be a "fast follower" instead, says Torkington. This is because the firm wants to be confident that it is using proven and scalable technology in the interest of its customers.

"However, I want us to be an early adopter in the R&D space. And the very reason why we appointed a group CTO was to create a stronger focus in that area and build links to academia and analysts to help us drive that agenda more aggressively," he says.

"If we proactively manage new technology adoption in a safe way, I am happy for us to be early adopters and take [new technology] to a scale we think it can help us. But we have to manage that very carefully."

Building on success

Standard Life's previous incumbent for IT, Keith Young - who retired late last year - was a strong proponent of the service oriented architecture (SOA) approach, which runs on IBM middleware, with developers using Java to develop applications.

The company has made "good progress" in that area, says Torkington, but there are still improvements to be made.

We have an excellent toolset for managing SOA and the success story there has been well documented and there is opportunity to get more re-use of that, and that is something we will be doing," he says.

Equally, use of agile methodologies has been credited in the past for reducing the cost of development, and that is also something that will continue going forward.

"Agile it is very pervasive in the company but is not completely deployed yet, so I would like to see us standardising its use across IT where appropriate and also move that beyond the software development to engage other parts of the company more effectively," says Torkington.

While excited about the opportunity, the IT chief is aware of the challenges ahead as Standard Life pushes its transformation agenda forward.

"It is essential to keep our thinking around the business operations and the customer services organisation and use technology to help us achieve our goals of automation, efficiency and customer satisfaction," says Torkington.

Christian Torkington: what he brings to the table

Previously the UK chief operating officer at insurance firm RSA, Christain Torkington joined Standard Life in March.

His past experience includes a five-year stint at Scottish Widows, where he left as director of operations. Before this, he worked at Barclays Bank in a variety of senior operational and business roles. Torkington also worked as a consultant for firms such as KPMG and PA Consulting in the UK and Hong Kong.

From an IT standpoint, Torkington says his consulting background, as well as his ability to understand the importance of enterprise architecture and "how to bring that to life in a meaningful way" will help him in the new job.

"It is also about looking at the way the IT function is structured, the way it is working and how it is led. In my roles at Barclays and Scottish Widows I gained a lot of experience in transforming IT and making it very clearly project and change-focused," he says.

Computer Weekly says

Christian Torkington is another recently-appointed manager in charge of technology who, despite having a wealth of experience in leading IT transformations, comes from a predominantly business-focused background.

Like Torkington, Network Rail CIO Susan Cooklin spent several years working in senior functions outside IT at Barclays. She believes that experience proves to be useful in her current job, where she is seeking to include IT in the wider business dialogue.

"Due to my background in corporate banking, I can talk to my colleagues here in a business-literate way and understand business problems very quickly and turn them into an IT opportunity, solution or a caution," she says.

As IT becomes increasingly commoditised and those in charge of technology take on additional duties - as is the case for Torkington at Standard Life, Martin Schofield at Harvey Nichols, and Darrell Stein at Marks & Spencer among others - those applying for a CIO role could be soon required to demonstrate less technology experience and more experience in managing a non-IT business unit.

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