by George Nott

Westpac CIO on banking’s next technology battleground

May 01, 2018
CareersCollaboration SoftwareDigital Transformation

The chief information officer of Westpac Banking Corporation has revealed what he sees as the banking sector’s next “battleground for technology”.

“It’s actually not about technology,” Dave Curran said at an Oracle CloudWorld event in Sydney this morning, “it’s about resource. How do actually find the capability?”

Given the shortage of available technology talent in Australia, a new approach to finding required skills was needed, Curran said.

“I’m strongly of the view, I think the way we develop talent has got to change. Where technology is going is actually bringing to an end the old model of ‘that skill is now redundant therefore that person is now redundant, I have to go and hire the new skill’. That’s not possible,” he explained.

The bank is instead training its staff in an “ever growing skill set”, and preparing them for a new world in which “change is our constant” he said.

Westpac’s rivals have also been mounting major employee training programmes in recent months. NAB in Aprillaunched a company-wide training program – the NAB Cloud Guild – to upskill more than 2,000 employees in cloud computing. In August last year, ANZ rolled out ‘scaled-agile’ approach to work, with training for hundreds of staff.

In another initiative the bank encouraged its staff to become “their own little data scientist” providing easy-to-use tools for them to draw value from the bank’s fast-growing data lake. CBA since 2015 has offered staff online cyber security courses, in partnership with UNSW.

Westpac last year launched an internal IT ‘university’ with online courses on future technologies. But as well as taking on new skills, staff needed to become comfortable with continuous learning and fluid roles, Curran said.

“And most human beings, particularly those that work in industries with technology, are predominantly introverted people who don’t particularly like constant change, and yet constant change is where we work. The biggest challenge of the next five years is not how we leverage cloud, its not about how we leverage big data, it’s actually how do we build the skill sets in our teams when we cant just go to market to get them,” he said.

“For our employees that’s a wonderful opportunity whilst also being a challenge and I think that’s our biggest battleground,” Curran, who joined Westpac from Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 2014, added.

Around 4,000 Westpac employees work in Agile teams. That in itself was giving them new perspectives and abilities, and bringing about a necessary breakdown in the concept of ‘IT people’ and ‘business people’, Curran explained.

“About three or four years ago a number of my colleagues turned up to work in black t-shirts because they thought that made them tech savvy. And then discovered that wasn’t the answer. People are becoming tech savvy and technology people are becoming business savvy and in my mind not fast enough, but we are going quickly,” he said.

“I’m hoping [the IT people, business people split] disappears as a concept,” Curran continued. “The idea of IT and the business suggests an ongoing tennis match. New methodologies, new approaches changes that. But the concept an IT person doesn’t understand the business they work in, I think is one that has to end very quickly. And similarly the concept you can work in a business and not fundamentally understand the IT that supports the business is something I think won’t last as well.”

It isn’t just staff being trained up at Westpac. The bank has around 15 artificial intelligence initiatives underway across various business units. Westpac can’t simply wait for the technology to advance, Curran explained.

“People still think of it as a new technology. It’s actually not, it’s a capability that has to learn. The analogy I use is it’s like hiring a 17 year old. A really smart 17 year old but still a 17 year old,” he said.

“You’re not going to let them loose on day one, you’re going to have to take a few years developing their skills. So the big challenge for our business is how do you hire 17 year olds and give them time to learn? Rather than doing what you normally do and wait until the technology is advanced and hire someone who has already learnt. You have to start that work now.”

A royal mess

The bank’s executives have been facing tough questions at the Banking Royal Commission in recent weeks. The commission has already exposed ineffective controls around lending at Westpac, kickbacks being paid to financial advisers and that it received fees for advice that wrecked the finances of customers.

While not commenting on any specific findings “I don’t know what you’re talking about” Curran joked the CIO said the Commission’s findings were “symptomatic of the challenges we see”.

“As organisations realise they don’t sell product they provide services that’s a massive shift . One of the things we’re seeing in the Banking Royal Commission, we’re seeing that shift is hard. It’s really hard, and how you manage that in large organisations can be done a lot better,” Curran said,

“I think trust in large organisations be they corporates, be they large banks, be they governments is something that we are challenged with in the 21st century and technology is both providing that challenge and offering solutions to that challenge,” he said.

Banks needed to become more transparent to win back that trust, Curran added.

“I think that’s the largest challenge. How do you make large organisations transparent? I think the technology is there to do that, but you have to open up that base level technology, that core business logic and data, not just the things that sit on top of it,” he said.