CIO Inspires Innovation and Business Transformation

The IT department at financial services firm TIAA-CREF is fostering innovation that reinvents how the company operates, says CIO Annabelle Bexiga


Our firm has transformed from a one-product company focused onretirement to a multi-product financial services firm. This has meant big changes for IT. One goal is to foster innovation that reinvents how the company operates.

Consumers are accustomed to all sorts of mobile, social and online experiences, and we need to meet their new expectations for what they should get, when they should get it, and how easy it should all be. By leveraging social, mobile, analytics and cloud technologies, IT can create tremendous value in financial services.

We decided not to set up an innovation team because we believe innovation is everyone's job. We motivate employees to think about how they can change what they do. Rewards and recognition help a lot.

At our monthly town halls, we showcase individuals who have done something cool, and this year we've held two IT expos where people can demo something they're proud of. There was lots of competition over creating the best booth, costumes and even dances. These types of events create a culture of collaboration.

We've also created an IT career path system, where people can plan their careers by reading the job descriptions and learning about the training needed for each role. As you get more senior, innovation becomes an essential part of your performance expectations.

Innovation comes naturally to some, but others need a little push, so we've developed some training components that we're rolling out to the entire team. We use a methodology created by Edward de Bono called "success thinking," where you learn to approach problems from a variety of useful viewpoints, and we talk about ways to spark lateral, outside-the-box thinking. We've also implemented significant cultural change programs, and people are seeing the results, especially in the form of more effective meetings.

One of our IT innovations is our Unified Desktop application. Our client-facing teams used to have to log in to many different systems to answer clients' questions; now, they use a wiki-like interface to find the relevant information. The team started by thinking about what the experience should be and worked backward from there, instead of thinking about what the problem was and trying to solve it.

Instead of seeing a bunch of disconnected systems and trying to integrate them--which would have resulted in a long and expensive project--they thought about how things should, and do, work in other contexts, such as the consumer experience. That led to the wiki interface, and they used open-source technologies to create it cost effectively and quickly. So in one short year, we've created something with a significant business impact that can be replicated broadly.

One of our biggest challenges was breaking down walls in the organization and building a one-team agenda, not just in IT but in all of TIAA-CREF. We also needed to expand our thinking and processes to work in a multi-business environment with a diversified client base, including segments like Gen Y and women.

We've also worked to improve our online presence. We're proud of our website today, and it's gotten great external recognition. We're getting noticed, which helps to attract great employees and great clients.

Annabelle Bexiga is CIO at TIAA-CREF.

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