by Nadia Cameron

How David Whiteing is creating the right culture at CommBank

Apr 23, 201510 mins
CareersCollaboration SoftwareInnovation

He might be Commonwealth Bank’s CIO, but David Whiteing is very clear about the importance of culture in getting the job done. After all, to meet modern customer and organisational needs, you have to foster skills that recognise technology as a strategic business asset, he says.

“While I spend my life in and around technology, I’m absolutely clear the things that matter are creating the right culture and having the right people,” he tells CIO. “And with that culture, how you create the right amount of collaboration and teamwork.

“Because in this world of rapid change, it’s those things that allow you to outperform, not the technology choices you make.”

Business roots

Whiteing started his career in the Australian IT consulting sector, working for what was then Coopers and Lybrand before joining Anderson Consulting, the forerunner of Accenture.

“I was always relatively comfortable being given positions of authority where I had to make decisions.

But I never had that moment where I said ‘I’m going to be a CIO’,” he says. “I believe that if you absolutely do your best and have the right attitude and mindset, good opportunities present themselves.”

Whiteing relocated to the UK with Anderson and remained overseas for 15 years, assisting clients across countries and cultures. In his last role there, he worked with BP’s global technology leadership team.

Whiteing moved back to Australia for family reasons and reconnected with former CommBank CIO, Michael Harte, opting for a position with the banking group overseeing architecture and planning.

“When he [Harte] decided to go, I thought ‘this is what I’ve been preparing for my whole life’,” he says. “So again I took the risk, jumped in and here I am. I’m very pleased I did.”

There’s no doubt Whiteing had big shoes to fill when Harte left CommBank last July after an eight-year run to join Barclays Bank in the UK. During Harte’s tenure, technology became a core strategic priority of CommBank, and IT systems underwent transformative change.

Nine months in, Whiteing is less focused on putting his stamp on being CIO, and more concerned about determining and executing strategy based on what external customers and the business needs.

“If you’re lucky and you do a good job, there are parts of the DNA you’ve influenced that persist. That could be that the great people you’ve developed continue to be successful in that environment. But it’s not about me: It should never be that.”

Whiteing adds he’s made only “subtle” changes to the team, but says structure needs to evolve alongside strategy. “It’s much more about the way we work, the mindset that we have, the culture that we follow and making sure we have the right people with the right capabilities,” he says.

Digital disruption

One big game changer is digital. Whiteing describes the financial services industry as a sector that’s “highly susceptible” to being digitally disrupted long term, and says CommBank’s primary product today is “manufacturing electronic goods”.

To keep up with the age of hyper connectivity, he’s looking to learn from the digital disrupters who boast of high-velocity and relatively flat structures and that stress competency over position. Yet at the same time, CommBank faces ever-increasing regulatory compliance both in Australia and globally, potentially stifling its ability to move quickly.

“You only need to look at something like data privacy: Think about data privacy when the Internet first started and think about data privacy as it exists today,” Whiteing says. “Overlay that with additional regulations in financial services, then think about where that might be in 20 years’ time. That’s the regulatory regime we operate in.

“In a customer focused world, being resilient and secure remains really important. But as a business, we have to perform and deliver productivity and demonstrate year on year that we’re getting better. These are the contextual things happening. My question is how to respond to that.”

One way CommBank is striving to do this is moving from discrete decisions within a particular business unit or product set, to looking at the best option from a group and asset perspective, Whiteing explains.

“We’re pushing towards a common set of platforms that start to deliver a particular outcome,” he says. “A set of platforms is an aggregation of technologies, processes, people internally and also partners, and is designed to drive optimisation and innovation.

“On top of that, everything we do needs to be simplified and standardised because the customer wants a simple experience that’s repeatable.

Finally, we need to make everything we do in a digital world relatively open and easy to consume so it’s easy to know where the services are and how we consume them. If we choose to promote them externally, it’s also easy for external partners to consume or use our capabilities to develop applications and services.”

This is especially important given customers expect speed and rapid feature innovations, Whiteing says.

“On the front-end around engagement, we’re able to go at light speed, and in the core part of what we do, where availability, security and accuracy matters, we don’t have to work at the same pace but can innovate and drive things that can be consumed by the front-end very effectively,” he adds.

“In this way, teams also become closer to the customer because they understand exactly how their services are being consumed.”

Within this, Whiteing says it’s vital to recognise the link between customer-facing people needing core services, and the core services people need to create things that those front-end staff want.

His customer-led approach also sees him putting the emphasis on problem solving skillsets within his team, rather than pure technical or business attributes. “I’m much more interested in … people who are really excited about problem solving, and those comfortable dealing with ambiguity and not having all the answers but who are ready to still move forward and not become paralysed,” Whiteing says.

“These are people who are resilient and who have the ‘EQ’ [emotional intelligence]. If you don’t know the business but can approach the business person with the right EQ, they’re much more willing to have a dialogue with you.

“These skills might not be the traditional ones we sought in IT, but that’s the way forward. The next generation of workers coming in are quite tech savvy anyway, so it’s a different set of things you need to measure for.”


One of the big challenges CIOs still face is balancing rapid innovation with core technology upgrades and service. For Whiteing, however, the two are interconnected.

“The customer doesn’t care; they just want one price or one mortgage. It’s about coming back to what’s the core and then allowing that to be consumed quickly,” he says.

“If our customer goes to an ATM and it’s not available, or goes onto an app to pay someone and that’s not available, that’s not plumbing, that’s front-end, bad experience. The minute you start separating the two, you create this illusion that you have to make one the priority, and you end up with a dangerous imbalance.”

In recent years, CommBank made significant investments into upgrading its core banking services to support its customer objectives. Whiteing says the current five-year plan is about simplifying and standardising capability into open platforms for the longer-term play.

As a result, discussions around technology’s role at CommBank are more far-reaching. “I don’t think I’ve had one conversation that’s come down to what we’re doing [as a function] or why is it costing so much, and that’s because we’re challenging ourselves, not waiting for the business to do it.”

Data delivery

One long-term play, and arguably the holy grail for most organisations, is gaining a single view of the customer. According to Whiteing, CommBank has actually done it, bringing data sources together to create a common view so that regardless of channel or interaction, the customer is recognised almost in their entirety.

Not surprisingly, data integrity is precious. “We’ve created a platform that allows those various requirements [of the business] to be fulfilled,” Whiteing continues.

“We believe fundamentally that if we allow that [data] to spread out to every part of the organisation, our costs would go up, the potential for poor engineering and IT is increased because there’s a limited number of skilled and talented people, and our customer experience would probably over time go down.

“We also know data growth is exponential, so we have a two-tier model where we have a Hadoop capability that allows us to store pretty much everything at a commodity price, then an enterprise capability for the control, risk and financial reporting elements.

“This architecture allows us progressively to fulfil business requirements at a lower and lower marginal cost than what might traditionally have occurred if we’d allowed the fragmented data mindset.”

Within this framework, there are data sets only certain people can use because of the regulated environment CommBank operates in. What is dispersed through the business is the analytics capability, Whiteing says.

“In essence, what you have is a central capability that does all the engineering and the platform stuff, and embedded data teams where the analytics takes place and where the relevancy for the business sits very close to where the business is,” he says.

It’s this interconnected approach that sums up Whiteing’s take on being CIO. “A big part of what I talk about is less about demarcation and more about principles around who’s doing what,” he says.

“Because the best solutions are ones that are iteratively worked on, not ones that one team does then hands over to another team. It’s collective … and that’s what generates innovative solutions.”

Whiteing’s top 3 CIO skills

A thirst for knowledge: CIOs need to maintain a constant desire to learn, be challenged, and seek knowledge not just about technology or business, but via wider influences.

“Spend time with people from other fields, such as the arts or other businesses or around the world,” Whiteing advises. “It’s that stimulation and openness that allows you to start questioning whether you’re doing everything the right way, and if there’s a better way.”

Remain calm: The world is changing at warp speed. Having the skill to remain calm and to know when it’s time to leap on a change, or wait, is key, Whiteing says. “But when you decide you’re going to do something, don’t take away from the urgency of doing it.”

Run towards the problem: Listen hard for where there is heat and noise in the system and where you can deep dive and alleviate some of the pressure.

“I actively look for the points of conflict, the points of disagreement, and where we’re having a forward-looking discussion and there isn’t alignment,” Whiteing says. “If you step away from danger, the team has to self-solve and then you’re not always sure of getting the right answer.”