by Mark Chillingworth

Interview: Schroders CIO Matthew Oakeley is harmonising assets

Apr 10, 201411 mins
CareersFinancial Services IndustryIT Leadership

As an accomplished choral singer, Matthew Oakeley knows that a choir needs a strong alto, tenor, bass and soprano for a perfect harmony. As head of group IT at asset management specialists Schroders for the past eight years, he ensures that everything works in perfect harmony in a world of constantly changing technology demands and financial regulation.

Set up in 1804 as a merchant bank, today Schroders is a FTSE 100 asset management firm headquartered in London, but with over 3,500 employees in 27 countries. The Schroder family remain the majority shareholders in the organisation.

“It’s a very collaborative and flat hierarchy, and people stay here a long time,” Oakeley says of his organisation. “There’s a spirit of growth and investment that permeates the organisation, which creates an atmosphere conducive to getting things done.

“Our business is split between institutional investors such as company pension schemes, charities and governments, and the intermediary retail funds business, where individuals invest in Schroders funds through an independent financial advisor (IFA) or other intermediaries, such as banks.

“We are not an IT company, we are an asset management company, and as a result it is important that our IT efforts are always focused on delivering for our business. Our organisation is headquartered in London, but a sizeable part of our business comes from Asia, we have a growing US business and we have funds across Europe,” he says of the global nature of Schroders.

IT is also headquartered in London, but the regional needs are serviced through hubs in Singapore, New York and Luxembourg, which coordinate local IT capabilities in each location. There is also a separate IT organisation supporting our wealth management business from Zurich. Strategy and global policy comes from London and global applications are generally run from London.

“I split the teams into Business Consultancy – providing cross-company analysis to support project activity; Investment Management IT – supporting the business platform for our front, middle and back offices; Distribution IT – supporting CRM, web, email, online marketing and analytics; Corporate IT – supporting Finance, Legal, Compliance, HR, Risk, and so on; IT Production – supporting the main business applications and IT Infrastructure.”

Oakeley has been with Schroders during what can only be described as its most exciting period of technology history. Joining in 2005, within a year he was leading the replacement of the portfolio accounting system (PAS), the crucial platform for an asset management business. The legacy back office platform system and all the ecosystem that surrounded it was replaced in a large two-year project that was on time and to budget. This went live in 2008 just as the financial crisis began.

“By 2010 we came out a stronger organisation. With our back office in good shape, IT became all about supporting the growth of our investment business through scalable data systems and platforms. This focus has driven a transformation of the IT organisation and the way in which we work,” he says of how his organisation has had to reshape from a focus on operational platforms to a much more diverse, solutions- and data-driven operation.

“I’m very excited about the digital client space and the analytics possibilities. If we can better understand our clients and what they want, we can serve them better and develop activities that positively influence our business.

“The analytics teams are exploring how to track the connections between events: how does an article about one of our products in the press or a marketing campaign correlate to subsequent visits to our websites or flows across our funds? If you look at other sectors telcos, for example, they have impressive source data to work with – we are just at the start of this in our industry,” he says of the opportunities open to Schroders.

Operational modernisation

“We decided a few years ago that Production Support needed to be separate from IT development teams. The support team can’t feel like they are at the ‘end of the food chain’, they are the front line.  IT has just got to work,” he says of this cultural change that ensured the application support teams are seen as just as important as those that create new applications.

Like many CIOs, Oakeley knows that a reputation for reliability is the best investment towards innovation. There’s more to his production team than just support, they are the ‘border police’, protecting the Schroders environment by having the final say as to whether new applications are ready for use in a live environment, and owning and managing the end-to-end release processes.

“They make sure that everyone has the right visa to go live. It is all part of making the service work.

“You have got to have lots of different people and approaches within the IT department,” he says of the diversity of skills he likes to have in his team.

He has dedicated teams that sit ‘on-desk’ with the fund managers working under the codirection of IT and the divisional COOs. This, Oakeley argues, means they are responsive and agile, which has a direct business benefit as it enables Schroders to quickly build solutions to support the investment teams from a position of knowledge.

“We also have a business consultancy team; they play ‘sweeper’ supporting the delivery teams with analysis of business processes and problems. This is important as good solutions need to start with the business process first and the technology second. IT departments fall into a trap when they think it is all about the software.

“I believe that there are two types of project manager: the one who has the knowledge and talent to deliver an outcome, and the one who thinks it is only about methodology and process. You can know all the processes in the world, but it won’t deliver success without project managers that know how to deliver outcomes.

“What our business wants is delivery of business outcomes, not just software. They also don’t particularly care how we want to deliver – whether through traditional, formal projects or more agile team structures. It is IT teams that care about these structures; IT that chooses to use process to improve results. Finding the right blend of approaches that suits a particular challenge can be difficult for IT departments that are used to waterfall structures. You have to instil a sense that it is okay to be flexible and sometimes a little entrepreneurial,” he explains of managing the culture change within IT.

“The other important metric for IT is – are you efficient and how do you show it went well? The CEO has made it clear that efficiency is not about cutting, it is about showing value from what you spend; under-spending is as bad as spending foolishly.” A rhetoric that other organisations would do well to heed.

When CIO UK met Oakeley at the London headquarters, the IT leader had recently presented an IT strategy for the next three years at Schroders, which he said was a great opportunity to debate the key themes of the business and “making sure IT is responsive to the business”.

Oakeley used the latest strategy review as an opportunity to ask himself, if he was a new CIO here, what would he do? “Difficult to ‘blame the last guy’ when you are the last guy…” He jokes.

“The strategy document is about more than just strategy; it aims to help the organisation understand what IT does and then to explain what we hope to do next,” he reveals.

As well as a new strategy, in 2017 Schroders will move into a new headquarters at One London Wall Place. The organisation is currently split across several buildings.

“The firm is approaching it as a cultural opportunity and looking at how we work together, and how do the 20-year-olds who will run the company in the future think? I’m also using it to think about issues like data centres and ways of working; everything is up for grabs. I am taking the opportunity to look at how we organise the IT infrastructure and what we might be supporting in five years’ time.”

Schrodershas its infrastructure outsourced to Computacenter, in a deal struck in 2010. “Most of the run and operate is commodity stuff, so why wouldn’t you outsource it? But the difference is they run and manage it with us. So it is not an outcome-based service where you don’t care about how they do it as long as they do it; it is a managed partnership. The design, strategy and the architecture is with Schroders and we work with them on the solutions,” he says.

Oakeley and his team have already begun experimenting with internal social media, using Yammer, he says that first forays didn’t go as expected, but there have been good lessons learnt.

“It became a noise-generating machine rather than a communication channel, but it taught us a lot.

We are currently focusing our efforts on what is going on outside of Schroders and how we get involved in that,” he says of social media.

Although iPads are in general use, including a Schroders iPad app for its sales teams, large scale adoption of bring your own device must be approached cautiously in a highly regulated organisation like Schroders, he explains.

Regulations require calls and emails to be recorded and monitored for many staff, which makes use of personal devices difficult. Consumer devices can be used, but email and documents can only be operated within a secure container for tablet, phone and iPad access.

Oakeley admits his team gets a lot of pressure to be more open to consumerisation, but he believes it is a “difficult space for this industry”.

“I’m not sure there is a crisis in the way people want to work. “I do think, though, that there are some great new ways of innovating and working differently, which we have to tap into. So I worry that some of the effort on the consumer device security and adoption debate is going into the wrong questions. We need to encourage enablement whilst protecting what matters.

“Security should be modelled on a hotel not a fortress: the lobby is open to everyone, albeit monitored, but the doors to the individual rooms are secure, and they have to be really safe. The ‘lobby’ is the Wi-Fi enabled BYOD space. We focus heavily on security, after all every security analysis report says financial services are a major target. So it is a constant arms race and you have to be aware of what you are trying to protect,” he explains.

Professional outlook

“One thing we have started to do is to encourage the idea of IT as a profession,” he says as a corporate BCS member.

“We are trying to encourage the idea that a business analyst or project manager is not just a job, it is a career,” he says of his passion to broaden the understanding of the many and varied professional skills within the technology industry and to break the perception that an IT profession is only for code writers.

“People think a career in IT is just about programming, but most of my business analysts are business problem-solvers, and I want problem-solvers in my team,” he says.

He takes two or three of the graduate intake that enter Schroders every year. Often they have problem-solving skills first and foremost, and from there develop IT skills alongside their understanding of the business.

Oakeley himself knows all too well that more often than not a career in business technology leadership is one you fall into. He took a law degree and when asked once before why he avoided the chambers and headed towards the server racks.

“I’m a builder of things, not an undertaker,” he explains.

“Financial services is an environment with some very smart people wanting to solve tough challenges. That is very rewarding. I fell into financial services too and have stayed, and I now have strong business knowledge in asset management and how its systems work. Asset management is a very small business ecosystem. Insurance and banking are very different,” he says.

Oakeley met his wife through his choral singing and love of classical music and his four kids keep him busy out of the office.

CV: Matthew Oakeley

April 2005 – present:Group head of IT, Schroders

March 1994 – April 2005: Global IT director, UBS Global Asset Management

1994 – 1998:Analyst developer, Phillips & Drew