CBA’s David Whiteing on leadership, scary technology

If your current plans around how you’re going to transform your business don’t scare you, they’re not bold enough and you will be left behind.

This was the warning issued by Commonwealth Bank CIO David Whiteing to business leaders pondering their technology choices and investment in a world that increasingly values experience over product.

Speaking at a recent Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) event in Sydney, CBA’s tech chief gave the example of CBA customers who went from using branches three to four times a month on average, to logging onto the website three times a week and who now access the bank’s apps more than three times per day.

“That is kind of where people are at, there’s a convenience about it all and yes, we can originate a product online and we’ve taken more and more of our products through that mobile/online origination experience,” Whiteing said.

“The revenue attribution plummets dramatically, but the engagement increases, the customer satisfaction increases, and that’s kind of the profile of where it’s going to go. It’s the tipping point where you move from being a product-centric business to an experience-centric business.”

Be curious

Increasingly, Whiteing explained that he had noted the skills and capabilities of the next generation of cyber professional and found himself asking: shouldn’t that be the skill set for the next generation of everyone who works in the team?

“It’s the ability to be curious, it’s the ability to work in multidisciplinary teams, it’s the ability to create that intersection that’s going to get the breakthrough thinking and the discoveries that allow us to be relevant and appropriate for the future,” he said.

“When you go and talk to people in the Valley and you talk to some of the doyens of the industry like Doug Leone, who runs Sequoia Ventures, or you visit Facebook, what you really are experiencing is an immersion in the culture and a mindset, that these people have seen and participated in so many different technology trends that they’re not interested in necessarily predicting a technology trend, but what they’re deeply interested in is understanding who has the culture and the mindset for them to invest in or who has the culture and mindset to support.”

This means having the discipline as a leader to worry about taxes and finances, worry about culture and performance, worry about talent acquisition but to then work very hard to get out of the way and let people do what you’ve hired them to do.

“It’s that ability to not believe that a command/control structure is going to build a successful team for the future,” said Whiteing. “It’s that ability to recognise that as a leader there are one or two things that you’re going to be good at.

“I sure as hell know nothing about provisioning servers and coding, so I’m not going to be correct on those things. But I am going to provide clarity of direction, I am going to provide clarity on outcomes, I am going to set the standard around what’s culturally acceptable in my team, and I’m going to push hard and I’ve got diverse thinking around how we get stuff done.”

High-velocity world

As CIO of the Commonwealth Bank, Whiteing said his main focus for the next 12 months was to “increase our velocity, increase our productivity and continue to make sure that we’re safe, reliable and available”.

“My team is now becoming about 30 small digital teams inside the bank where I’ve pushed every decision that I can to the lowest level possible," he added.

“So I make very few decisions and most of my decisions are of a strategic, long-term, structural nature; they’re not of the day-to-day activity like signing off whether we use this partner or that partner because, bluntly, by the time a decision like that comes to me it’s so clear what the option is because everyone’s massaged the hell out of it that I really don’t add any value other than to write it down.

“We also want to drive really, really hard in those smaller teams to simplify and standardise so that we deliver a feature and function in one place and one place only in the bank and that we drive aggressively to increase the use of open source standards in order to take advantage of the innovation that is driven through that and the cost paradigm that it supports.

“That’s the world that I want. That’s a high-velocity world, high quality world and it requires a culture of commitment. We’ll continue to challenge our partners to bring the best that they’ve got in order for us to perform at an exceptional level.”   

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