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Beyond technology

Beyond technology

"We really need people to recognise that we are in a fast moving industry and that technologies come and go; new tools, new suppliers and new ways of things come out all the time," says ASB Bank chief of operations Russell Jones. "And in that environment, why wouldn't you rather move around, and develop and grow?"

For Jones, the answer to this question goes straight to the essence of what he has been doing at ASB.

His department -- which spans operations and technology -- has just completed a restructuring. "We pulled things more and more together and now we have one technology and operations function," he says. "We just have one division that is called Enterprise Services."

The reorganisation also focused on succession planning or what Jones calls "talent management".

"The idea is over a three-year period, people should expect to move into different jobs," he says.

He says this way, people know "they are going to get regular opportunities to go sideways, go up and learn new things. It also means if anyone leaves or gets promoted, then we know who is going to fill in the job."

"The idea is for every position ultimately to have two potential candidates to fill it. One that is 'ready now' where ready now means maybe in the next year or 'ready future' which may be a two to three-year horizon."

"That means we have to move people into jobs that they may not be comfortable with," he says. But people like opportunities, he adds, "and the reality is some of those opportunities aren't going to be very comfortable".

Jones believes this is a good way to develop talent. And while it is a departure from the usual corporate norms, he says, "I would much rather have an environment where people know that they are going to be able to move around and learn new things."

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The big move

Jones is sponsor of the Connect Programme which includes moving 1500 corporate and staff working in the central city office to a new building near the Auckland waterfront. The building will be "completely wireless" and is expected to be completed in September or October next year, says Jones. They plan to move in the first half of 2013.

The building is designed to accommodate what Jones calls "activity-based working". Less than 10 percent of the people will have a permanent desk. The majority of staff will be free to work where it makes sense for them to do so.

It could be in a meeting room, a desk, or an area with 24-inch screens and a full PC service for those working on projects.

Staff will be issued mobile tools -- smartphones and tablet devices -- instead of PCs. The bank is currently trialling a range of devices like Android and Apple phones and tablets across the executive team, sales and rural banking staff.

Jones says he believes it is the most advanced workplace of its kind in New Zealand. He explains ASB's parent company in Australia, Commonwealth Bank, is implementing a similar move for its office in Sydney, with around 5000 staff.

Jones wants to avoid a "big learning" curve when staff move into the new office. "The trick is to get started and do something and be flexible about it and make incremental investments rather than expending a huge amount of time analysing, then you come up with this wonderful dream that takes a year to implement and by then technology has moved on."

From CIO to COO

Jones joined ASB more than three and a half years ago after more than a decade in manufacturing -- he was IT director at International Paper in the US, and prior to this, was CIO for Carter Holt Harvey. He had been CIO for a year at ASB when he took on the role of chief operations officer with responsibility for technology.

"In the first six months I kind of thought about it as having two jobs," says Jones, who was named CIO of the Year at the CIO Summit in July. "I almost ran them as two separate teams."

But that distinction is no more, following a restructuring of the group over the past year. For Jones the integration is logical. "There is much more of a blend of technology and operations functions when you look at them together. You can see synergies [that] wouldn't seem so obvious if they were in different parts of the organisation."

For Jones, it is about taking the customer's perspective. "People need to be able to bank with us [in a manner] that makes sense to them," he says. That could be through a branch, an ATM, a contact centre, mobile, a Facebook page and Twitter.

The ASB Facebook Page 'likes' have reached almost 22,000 and more than 4000 follow the bank's Twitter page. ASB has also seen significant growth in the number of customers accessing their mobile specific banking services -- it has nearly 40,000 combined downloads of their iPhone and recently launched Android applications.

From a technology perspective, Jones says they work with the business for the requirements and design the systems. A team at ASB focuses on the social media and responds to customer queries and comments.

"So now we have regular releases on the Facebook site in the same way we have regular updates on our ATM software and our mobile phone app."

"We had people saying, can I talk to the bank through Twitter? And when we have got the capability, people would ask questions. Now we answer them and if we want to send out messages of things that are happening -- good or bad -- we can use Twitter to do that."

When you go into social media, you are inviting everybody to have a view, he says. "The issue is how you process that and what you do with it," he says.

"You know, you can ask people what they want but actually, [if] Steve Jobs had asked people what they wanted, they would not have told him to design an iPad."

Delving into social media also led to insights on managing similar projects in the new consumer landscape. ASB opened what it believes to be the world's first bank branch on Facebook in 2009. Jones says there were "different schools of thought" when they did this. "People thought it was a silly idea and it will never really work. Some though it is brilliant," he says. "In the end we made the decision to give it a try and see"

He says it was a pretty quick and relatively inexpensive project. "We did it and it looked like it had some legs and some value. We started getting positive feedback on it." For the second phase of the project, Jones says they had "industrialised" a number of things underneath and made some improvements.

As Jones puts it, there will be lots of challenges along the way as they work through the range of programmes in the upcoming months. "We are having fun as we work our way through," he says with a smile.

Jones recalls a recent conversation with some members of his team that went like this: "Do you think technology is a fast moving industry? 'Yes'. Do you think people in technology should be happy with that and [are] happy to change?"

To this, Jones answers: "If you are in a changing industry and you have chosen to be in it, why are you hesitant about changing yourselves?"

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