Today, every business is a technology business. Whether a company sells ice cream, car components or insurance, the chances are that technology will enable – or at least influence – its processes, communications, production and the delivery of its products and services.
In most sectors, technology is also behind the dramatic market shifts of the past few years. In the finance sector alone it’s driven the rise of online banking, the introduction of mobile banking, the growing use of social media and the increasing use of data analysis for planning and better informed decision-making.
But still, technology talk seldom breezes through the rarefied air of the boardroom. Senior executives may be asked to authorise major investments, but IT infrastructure is still not often seen as a feature of strategic planning or policy-making.
In the finance industry, most CEOs don’t have a background in technology. They have usually worked in banking or associated areas for most of the lives or have moved into the sector from other big businesses. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t understand technology or that they underestimate its importance. However, they do seem inclined to leave IT decisions to the appropriate department and, as a result, investment tends to be piecemeal and lack strategic direction. In other words, money is only spent on the ‘must do’ projects.
Using the example of an airline – but one that’s easily translatable to a finance company – Jeanne W Ross and Peter Weill illustrated this point in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Four Questions Every CEO Should Ask About IT: “When you ask what you can do with technology you get the electronic boarding pass or the email notice about a change in flight. Nice, but not differentiating. When you rethink your business you get a new kind of airline,” they say.
In the finance industry the need for fast profits encourages this short-term approach. The nature of bonus schemes and the practice of addressing changing market conditions by replacing a CEO or senior management team are further disincentives to think long term. Senior executives are forced to put more emphasis on the immediate future, looking to a 12-month horizon, rather than planning further ahead.
Yet the IT infrastructure of most well-established financial organisations is in urgent need of attention. Market activities such as the rise in mergers and acquisitions have left them with a complex and disjointed environment and siloed, duplicated and often inaccessible data. In an increasingly competitive market where new products are continuously changing the landscape, an inflexible and disparate infrastructure can hamper speed to market and result in loss of business.
Older companies are increasingly looking over their shoulder at newcomers hot on their heels. It’s not unusual now for one of these younger businesses to capture a market by getting their products or services there first. Unhampered by the scars of mergers and acquisitions they have less complex and more flexible infrastructure that can outpace older companies, causing erstwhile leaders to lose their market share.
Traditional organisations must see this as a wake-up call. Board-level executives should begin to regard their IT infrastructure as just as important as their products, people and other assets. After all, it’s not all just data, but valuable information that can be used as a competitive tool.
CEOs need to broaden their horizons. Instead of looking only 12 months ahead they should adopt a 10-year horizon. This will enable them to work with a systems architect to take an overall view of their infrastructure, ensuring that it’s flexible enough to accommodate future market demands and organisational developments. This way they will be able to go to market at least as quickly as the new ‘agile’ businesses that have become their competitors.
It’s rather like deciding to extend your home rather than move. When times are hard, it’s an easier decision to put on a conservatory here and a utility room there rather than taking the risk of moving completely. But doing this without an architect and a long-term plan, means the result is a hotch-potch house that doesn’t work as a home.
A short-term, tactical approach to technology has a similar result. All the small changes might be well worth doing. However without a far-sighted, top-level overview, it’s easy to end up with a mismatch of systems and applications and no defined direction.
The approach should not be one of a “big bang” wholesale change in one go, rather more holistic planning and design around commercial objectives with incremental change that takes you toward your target state.
Already, the finance sector seems to have recognised the need for incentives to plan further ahead. New moves to reward CEOs with equity rather than straight financial bonuses should encourage a less myopic approach.
Nobody really knows where the finance sector is heading and what will be needed to thrive in the future. But a high-level, long-term vision combined with sound systems architecture will provide a firm but flexible foundation for most future developments. It just needs CEOs to stop seeing technology as just an enabler – and begin regarding it as a valuable strategic asset.
Andrew Holley is a principal at Holley Holland, a business consultancy specialising in financial services.