by Mark Chillingworth

Insurance CIO James de Watteville knows how to tackle hard projects

Dec 09, 2009
CareersFinancial Services IndustryIT Leadership

Insurance can be seen as not the most exciting thing but when people- need you, then an insurance company is an emergency service,” says James de Watteville, CIO of RSA, the former Royal & SunAlliance. This is not the corporate patter of a senior-level manager keen to demonstrate- how well aligned he is; De Watteville knows from personal experience how important his industry can be to its customers. In September 2008 his wife and children were travelling on the M25 when an articulated truck crashed into her car in the middle lane. He has pictures on his PC of the remains of the Honda crouching at the foot of a giant DAF to demonstrate the seriousness of the crash. “The service was not good enough,” he says of the family experience of n” href=””>More Th>n, an RSA insurance brand, in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Since then, De Watteville has faced the challenges of being an insurance company CIO through the lens of the customer.

We meet De Watteville in his central London office, a stone’s throw from Leadenhall Market. He is quick to lay down the marker of his career as a CIO and IT leader on the supply side and clearly likes to deal with matters with a straight bat. As the inter-view progresses we discuss the role of the CIO as a business leader and how they can shape the organisation, not just the IT function. At this point De Watte-ville reveals the picture of the car crash and you can sense that this event gave him a real insight into the challenges of -being an RSA customer and an RSA employee, both of whom are his clients. “[That insight] can be very powerful in terms of communicating upwards, sideways and downwards,” he says. “To retain and attract good customers [you need] an appreciation that RSA is serving millions of customers in times of need – and that is the only time they need you.”

De Watteville realised from the dealings his family had with More Th>n that workers at RSA were struggling to handle the claim because they did not have the best tools at their disposal. “There are 8000 people who work for RSA in the UK. Their challenge has been an under-investment in things like desktops; they were still using Office 97. -Systems were too unreliable to support the business.”

Service updates Knowing that his two distinct customer groups were in need of better service, De Watteville sought funding for upgrades. After joining RSA in 2008, his first year and a half has been about -improving service, because random failures were bringing down call centres in the UK and India. “If your core systems fail, then your business starts to really hurt. So I got the business to accept that with the right level of funding at the right time we could create a plan that would get them out of a hole.” That hole was 11,000 lost hours of productivity in one month at one time. “People have a right to expect the tools of their job to be as current as the tools they have at home,” De Watteville says. “The horror of waiting for the system to log on is a bad start to the day. It’s about giving people the tools that are available that are high performing for their job.” De Watteville didn’t expect a major refresh of the organisational infrastructure to be part of his role when he joined RSA in May 2008. “When I arrived there had been many years of under-investment in the infrastructure. They had extended the house but forgot to look after the drains. The datacentre has been described as a museum of computing, there is lots of ’80s kit down there. It has enabled us as a team to remind ourselves what were are about,” he says of the IT team. And it doesn’t stop with the new desktop and networking systems: De Watteville also has to face up to the infrastructural complexity of a company that has grown rapidly through a series of mergers and acquisitions. “My next challenge is to migrate legacy systems from the M&A activity to our strategic systems,” he says, adding that RSA has invested in a policy claims system and that he plans to “really get the best from these” in phase two of his strategy as CIO.

De Watteville is an ardent believer in outsourcing and since joining RSA has sealed major contracts with IBM and Accenture. He renegotiated a contract with IBM for infrastructure management, datacentre operations and service desk while Accenture is responsible for all application development and management using its offshore resources. With major providers operating the IT stack within his organisation, De Watteville has reshaped the team under his command. “The team I have here contains people with a sweet spot of vendor, contract and financial management. They under-stand contracts.” It is a subject he warms to. “Huge amounts of value are built into each deal and we have to make sure we don’t leak it. There are levers in these deals such as volumes and discount metrics; you have to make sure you don’t leave anything on the table,” he says.

He is not talking about tightening the thumbscrews so tight the supplier bleeds to death (see Vendor experience, for De Watteville’s lessons from the supply side) but instead insists on how important it is for CIOs to ensure they spot everything available to them from their suppliers and get it for the good of users and customers. “It is like [stocking] a fridge; we put goodwill into it. Getting their [suppliers]- bills paid. We keep an informed list of -areas where they have gone above the level- of the contract to get things done.

Tough justice De Watteville is no stranger to difficult organisational challenges, including a stint with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). “I went to the MoJ as a transition -director to migrate IT from one set of suppliers to another. The Ministry had committed to the change over but didn’t know how to do it,” he says. He spent two years in the public sector, getting 10 suppliers to co-operate as the eight incumbent suppliers handed their work over to the two new suppliers for infrastructure and applications. “We had to keep continuity of service to people. People talk of changing the -engines mid-air, and that really was what it was like,” he recalls. “I realised that if you get all these people together in a room often enough, they cannot risk being unprofessional too many times. So I got them in a room and got them to say what they were doing and I got them to behave. “The second trick was that we had three daily ‘prayer meetings’, so we had very fast governance.” De Watteville was hard-headed with suppliers to the MoJ, not because he -believes that was CIOs are for, but because he knows the mentality and professionalism of the vendor community. “Having been a supplier for most of my career you have an appreciation for how they will behave,” he says. “If you are on the supply side you do want to help your client, but you also have to deliver margin and revenue. The goals overlap, plus all the vendors have different cultures. Putting them in a room together you break down their home loyalties; you bring them together,” he says of the MoJ experience.

Accent on outsourcing De Watteville began his career at what is now Accenture and remained at the consultancy for 15 years, carrying out large change programmes before progressing to outsourcing. While at Accenture he led the outsourced London Stock Exchange technology team and was a partner in the capital markets for business development before moving to become head of service delivery at the National Grid, a role which involved him outsourcing its IT operations to CSC. After bedding in the contract for a year, he joined CSC as a member of its UK board and led the delivery of CSC’s -Connecting for Health contract. De Watteville is from the CIO school that believes in working with a tried and tested team. “[The MoJ experience] was actually very enjoyable and I have brought several people over to RSA. They bear the scars of that experience.” “Most of the senior people I’ve brought in I’ve worked with elsewhere. The Accenture lead team are my ex-bosses at Accenture,” he says of the RSA contract with Accenture. “We all have deep, deep form.” With a large family, De Watteville doesn’t get much time for his great passion, ocean yacht sailing. “Ocean racing is extravagant; you use all your leave without the family,” he explains, but he is planning to enter next year’s Sydney-to-Hobart race, one of the most gruelling sea racing events in the world.