"I love this article about chief digital officers, I need to show it to our COO Tony Prestedge."

Nationwide's Daryl Wilkinson is chuckling away when we meet at the building society's head offices in Swindon at the end of April, a month before reporting its best ever year with pre-tax profits of £677 million. He's just been shown Ade McCormack's article in that month's edition of CIO magazine - The Four Horsemen of the CIO Apocalypse.

"My assistant underlined this section for me," Wilkinson says. "She said that it's me being described - the cheeky upstart shaking the tree." Wilkinson is Nationwide's Head of Group Digital Development, or, in McCormack's part-jovial and part-serious analogy, the third horseman - conquest - a de facto CDO with a smart TV and a smartwatch.

Nationwide operates with a unique structure, its COO Prestedge overseeing the mutual's IT transformation having joined in 2008 as a result of the building society's acquisition of the Portman Building Society, where he was group operations director.

"The Digital Development department was founded almost 18 months ago," Wilkinson says. "It was just me to begin with, I had been head of strategy and architecture working for Tony.

"But I'd been harping on about digital like a lunatic – like a guy wearing a sandwich board yelling out 'digitisation, digitisation'.

"Our CEO Graham Beale asked me to do this job because he saw that we were making progress, but wanted to turbo-charge what we were doing, to join it together so we weren't like speedboats racing off in different directions."

CDO apocaplyse

Wilkinson's first recruit was Jake Chambers, the head of Group Digital Strategy, Research and Innovation, one of three who sits below Wilkinson along with head of Group Digital Design Kate Watson and an interim head of Group Digital Capabilities.

"Jake leads all of our strategy, research and innovation. It's very much looking ahead, what's happening in the industry and consumer world and interpreting those trends," Wilkinson explains.

"Kate leads all the user experience. If I don't mandate standards for the customer experience in the digital world then we'll screw it up because we'll think we know what we're doing, but if we're honest and show some humility since a lot of us are still learning and get some expertise and support, and have a lead in Kate who can define very clearly what a great customer experience looks like."

It was this customer focus which underpins Nationwide's digital strategy, and what Wilkinson says was better to keep in house rather than turn to the services of consultants or other third parties.

"If you digitise and 'applify' some of this content, you're hiding some of the complexity from the customer, removing it from their experience – and it's simpler and quicker to do it this way and using agile development methods you can roll it out a lot faster," Wilkinson says.

"It's about empowering the consumer to make their own choices, and we're increasingly trying to be the voice of the consumer but we have to balance it with the voice of the regulator and the business as well. This is the challenge that Jake and I are embracing.

"And I asked Jake to do what he does because I didn't want to take opinions from consultants masquerading as thought-leadership, because it was just opinion. I'd rather form my own opinions and act on those.

"I found an awful lot of firms were buying consultants' opinions, large packs of information for a certain price, and an awful lot of what they were talking about – and if it sounds arrogant I don't mean it to – we'd discussed probably 12 months ago."

When CIO UK catches up with the Nationwide digital team at the end of April, the building society is fresh from its two-day leadership conference, where Wilkinson tells us CEO Beale announced to the company that at the heart of its strategy was going to be digitisation.

"It was fantastic how our CEO stood up on stage and talked about the next five years with emphasis on the customer using digital and told his personal story. And now he's on Twitter and immersed in this world and was encouraging everyone to sign up to Twitter and understand the power of social media, and utilise devices and applications," Wilkinson says.

"Absolutely digitisation is at the heart of what we do, but I think unlike others we recognise digitisation isn't changing society – society is using digitisation to change itself, and it's all customer led."

Fail fast?

One of the gripes of Wilkinson and his digital shop is the 'trendy' idea thrown around about 'failing fast'. At a mutual company, the team believes, this is an unacceptable way of thinking.

"Jake and I absolutely hated this phrase 'fail fast'. We spun that around and said why not succeed fast? We open dialogues with our members very early on after interpreting general trends and come up with some opinion about those," Wilkinson says.

"We use crowdsourcing with our own staff, and that dialogue may last hours and it may last months.

"We go through an R&D process and iteratively build that step further using prototypes. We start with a wireframe, take it through a process and we eventually get a tablet or phone in front of them, and we use that with a group of customers over several days – which is usual practice.

"But we say succeed fast because we're a mutual. Capital is precious and resources are precious to us. We don't really understand the mentality of accepting we're going to have to throw some money away. We don't accept that; it's trendy to say it but we don't subscribe to it.

"Our challenge is to use capital wisely, and the way to do that is to collaborate with customers; and why not do it in a digital way."

Chambers echoes these sentiments, explaining that it is the consumer which is driving how Nationwide is building digital products.

"We front end the work to try and help that succeed fast ethos, so it's already honed and much more likely to succeed," he says.

"We have to get from customers at the start of the process what they want from financial services, what they want from digital products, and never stray too far from what we think that success looks like.

"And the customer's expectations are being driven not by experiences in this industry, but in other sectors."

Digital projects

During our time in Swindon we were able to catch up with other Nationwide stakeholders involved in digital banking and the customer experience.

Head of future customer outcomes, Richard Searle, said that he did not think "help, support and advice will ever go away" as he demonstrated Nationwide's remote advisors, a team of 25 centralised expert advisors offering advice to customers in the building society's branches via Cisco videoconferencing systems.

This, Searle explained, had been rolled out in 61 branches and tripled the number of meetings advisors were able to make in a day, while cutting out travel for employees and giving Nationwide a competitive advantage by significantly reducing the time it takes for a specialist to see a customer from weeks to days.

Searle said that while the project started in more rural communities where there was a particular requirement for it, their Threadneedle Street branch in the City of London had been flooded with "young urban professionals" – while customer satisfaction and sales conversion was also higher compared to face-to-face appointments at other branches.

The mutual's head of digital banking and self-service, Paul Cooper, and head of eCommerce and digital marketing, Chris Hulse, said how the building society had been through a process of trying to make transactions quick and easy for its customers and had surpassed other bigger banks with its products and services.

Hulse said: "Four or five years ago Nationwide was behind and our internet banking was falling apart. Now we've got a market-leading mobile app; it's late but it works and it's good."

"It's better to be slightly late, but understand what your customers really want. And every interaction we have now is on a platform less than five years old."

Indeed, the Nationwide has the top-rated mobile banking app on the iTunes store, and was nominated for three awards in the UK Digital Experience Awards around its Homebuyers Companion app.

"Taking the vanity scores of the app store," Wilkinson says, "if you asked me who the best at this is I'd have to say us.

"Barclays may be perceived to be a market leader because they do an awful lot with that scattergun approach, and they also market it very effectively. But I think if we told more people what we do and we were more assertive in that marketing, I think you'd see a difference."


Nationwide is currently in the process of extending and beefing up its WiFi network to enable staff to bring their own devices to work at the company's Swindon headquarters. This is nothing new, groundbreaking or special – countless organisations and their technology chiefs have rolled out similar schemes before the term BYOD was coined by mobile device management vendors.

The twist at Nationwide was that it was pushed forward by its head of digital after realising it was the way the company needed to work and instigating an employee survey to gauge opinion.

"We sent out a survey asking employees how many would want to bring in their own device to work, and to utilise that in or outside of core working hours and what they wanted to access," Wilkinson says.

"In the first two hours it was obvious from the number of responses and their positive sentiments that it was an absolute no-brainer.

"So we now want staff to be able to connect to our network seamlessly, irrespective of where they work, and on the back of that different types of space will be created in this building depending on the needs and the different categorisations of workers and working styles."

'No such thing as an enterprise solution'

The driver for Wilkinson was his own way of working and dealings with Nationwide's own internal barriers.

"IT wouldn't let me have my Apple TV which I also use for videoconferencing with my team," Wilkinson says. "They said they don't allow consumer devices and there's no enterprise solution to get it set up.

"I told them there is no such thing as an enterprise solution and a consumer solution. There are just solutions, and guess what – they're increasingly consumer led.

"We need an environment where people can walk into the building and use a device of their choosing which the IT department shouldn't be expected to provision because the days of enterprise provisioning are over."

Wearable banking

As noted earlier, Nationwide's digital champion is a gadget advocate and espouses the uses of his Pebble Smartwatch.

"I'm digitally adventurous," Wilkinson says. "I'm the person who wants to give things a go.

"I saw the Galaxy Gear, the Sony and the first iteration of Pebble on Kickstarter, and thought it was ugly and nobody would wear it beyond the real tech-heads.

"I know what I want; style is important to me but Apple haven't released one yet and when they do I'll probably get one.

"But this one looks good, it's a nice stylish watch. And if my phone is in my bag or pocket, my emails, texts, my WhatsApp and my tweets come to my watch. I can control my iPod on my iPhone from here, and it's something that stimulates me.

"In terms of banking I get texts alerts here, my contactless payments can be on here. It's not yet NFC-enabled but I can quite easily make it so by melting off the chip and sticking it on the back."

And Wilkinson believes that the same sceptics rubbishing smartwatches are the same who believed tablets would never take off when Apple unveiled the iPad in 2010, preceding a massive decline in laptop and desktop PC sales.

"People who are saying 'what's the point in it' are the same people who said that about the iPad or the smartphone. Naturally we'll see lots of experiments until something finally sticks, but wearables will eventually become dominant in the next 18 months; the difference will be Apple or Motorola combining a really beautiful experience with a really beautiful design. The only thing I don't like about the Pebble is that it's not yet touch-enabled," he says.

"By wearing this I understand it, and I can understand the bridge from the iPhone to this and it's a very, very narrow step to take. It's absolutely going to happen – this watch will be a payment method. It will be touchscreen, like an iPod nano on your wrist. And why would you not want that?"