by George Nott

CIO50 2017 #21: Greg Booker, RACQ

Nov 21, 2017
Technology Industry

When Greg Booker invited a handful of RACQ’s technology to a coffee meeting they appeared a little anxious.

“It consisted of me talking and people looking worried they were going to be axed on the spot,” Booker, who joined the automobile club in 2014, remembers. “There was clearly little trust in senior management and almost no openness from the technology staff.”

Staff engagement scores were low, even by the standards of technology shops which are not typically high scoring. How effective can an informal chat over a hot drink be for morale?

Booker has persisted, every week hosting two one hour coffee meetings with a group of six to eight randomly grouped technology staff.

As people received their invites to their second or third coffee chats, a change occurred, Booker says.

“A willingness to engage and openly discuss what worried them emerged,” he says.

The morning meet-ups continue to this day.

“They continue to be a loose format where I convey some thoughts and ideas, and even some frustrations, and the staff sitting around reciprocate. For me they have become something of a cathartic exercise, and I believe for the staff it has become a safe environment to have their input, talk on controversial topics, and ask questions they wouldn’t ask in a broader forum,” Booker says.

“Lifting engagement in any material way is not an overnight fixhellip;[It’s been] an extended journey in generating trust and open communication,” he adds.

Some 18 months after the coffee meets commenced engagement among the technology team had risen significantly. A survey conducted in May this year, found engagement in the function to be the highest in the company by a large margin.

“I learned fairly early on that the technology itself is largely irrelevant, the CIO role, regardless of title, is very much a people focused role,” Booker says.

Banking on the future

With his team of 350 IT staff engaged and enlivened, Booker has led a number of significant technology projects at the Brisbane headquartered company which can trace it’s history back to 1905.

Many of these have been in preparation for the launch of mutual bank RACQ Bank which opened in September to offer members “a trusted alternative to share-holder owned, profit-hungry banks”.

The organisation had largely operated on disparate databases and legacy mainframe systems. But these systems were not at all scalable and the resource demand required to maintain the infrastructure was insufficient to cope with the rapid growth RACQ was experiencing.

“Scalability, efficiency and effectiveness of the infrastructure was key to success,” Booker says.

A hybrid cloud and on-premise model was implemented, and the Oracle Supercluster was deployed to serve as an integrated server, storage, networking and software system.

The result of decommissioning some 300 servers has been an avoidance of ongoing maintenance costs, and a significant reduction in system outages.

“Whilst the cloud environment was a significant step forward for a traditional company like RACQ, it required an innovative approach to ensure cost and utilisation levels were continually optimized,” Booker says.

The cloud operation teams were given a mandate to further reduce costs by ensuring that environments were correctly-sized for the given application. This resulted in a massive cost saving in compute costs.

Cost-driven efficiency gains have continued with proactive reserve instance purchases which have yielded even further long-term savings.

Innovation saga

What the company calls its “innovation saga” has been an evolutionary journey. Several false starts provided valuable learnings regarding how to adjust a conservative RACQ culture to a more innovative and open culture. The RACQ innovation model is now predicated on 4 themes, Culture, Innovative ways to fix existing problems, external partnering, and our ‘moonshots’, those big ideas that fundamentally shift the bar – A motoring club becoming a bank for example. Most recently our move into process automation (RPA) is an example of work we are doing across themes 1 and 2, culture and fixing existing issues

“This was a significant step for RACQ to embrace such a theme, as historically traditional business models do not typically lend themselves well to identifying test cases for automation. This endeavour was the ultimate internal disruption by challenging traditional thinking practises and elevated the role technology plays within the new digital business world,” Booker says.

A proof of concept was stood up in November, and weeks later was running successfully, taking emailed purchase orders and inputting them into the finance team’s ERP platform Microsoft Dynamics AX.

The company now works closely with a Brisbane based startup Blackbooks to build and rollout business enabled process and chat bots. RACQ has now built an internal innovation space known as Base Camp and contained within is the RPA development hub known as Bot Central. Staff are able to walk through Base Camp and its location next to the staff canteen allows us to run lunch time innovation sessions which range from screening Ted Talks to presentations around emerging and exponential technologies. Bots are now live across all areas of the RACQ business, ranging from HR to Insurance, Assistance, and the Bank and have been met with open arms by staff who see them as an enabler rather than a threat.

Booker and his team have also launched an integrated group wide program of work to oversee, coordinate and optimise the technologies (including an enterprise data hub and utilisation of data lakes in the AWS Cloud environment) and the capabilities required for an enhanced analytics framework, all within stringent regulatory bounds.

Booker’s work over the last year has gone a long way towards helping the company better connect with its customers, as RACQ chief communication officer Paul Turner explains:

“As a member based organisation RACQ has had to evolve from a one-way conversation with its 1.7 million owners to a genuine two-way conversation where we meet their needs quickly while also foreseeing what those demands will be before they occur. In his roles as CIO, Digital, and innovation head for the organisation, Greg is a guiding force in this revolution and essential to its ongoing success.”