Tim Hynes, CIO at Allied Irish Bank, is the epitome of a contemporary IT leader in the finance sector and is heading the company’s drive to achieve optimum digital performance. While he recognizes the importance of operational systems and services, Hynes also places significant emphasis on the implementation of digital transformation.
“Technology is so crucial to the delivery of modern financial services on a minute to minute basis,” says Hynes. “One of the things about being in the IT space is that it never stays still. You have to keep moving forwards or die. That’s part of why I love it.”
Hynes – who joined the organization in September 2015 – works closely with other C-suite leaders at the bank, including the Chief Digital Officer, to create a single technology strategy for the business. He also engages on a regular basis with the operational risk and audit functions. Hynes says a strong working relationship with these functions is essential to successful IT and achieving optimum digital performance.
“The CIO position is all about leadership,” he says. “You have to be able to set a culture, be clear on the purposes of the organization and get your smart people to figure out how you’re going to get there. If you have that mind-set, it makes it a lot easier to engage with the rest of the business.”
Understanding the complexities
Hynes says IT leaders in all industries face similar challenges but he draws attention to the specific nature of issues faced by finance CIOs. While a technology chief in a manufacturing firm might not face-out to customers, banking IT leaders face a dual mix and must keep customers happy, while also staying focused on back-end systems.
“In our world, we have to be able to run a core set of services,” he says. “If I think of an area like payments, people can take that service for granted when they buy something in a shop. But we process in value twice the GDP of Ireland every year through our payments engine. So, it’s almost like an element of national infrastructure.”
Hynes and his team at AIB must keep a watchful eye over these core, critical services. At the same time, the bank must ensure it continues to support the new, modern services upon which its customers depend, such as internet and mobile banking.
Increased complexity comes from the fact that Hynes must support these back-end and front-end requirements across a fast-changing environment. Customer expectations flex rapidly and CIOs must be ready to respond. In this era of almost constant digital transformation, Hynes also points to the growing issue of cyber defense.
“It’s a huge issue – your attacker only has to be lucky once,” he says. “Security is an area we have to put a lot of focus on, like all organizations should. As you expose more services to customers in the outside world, you also have to protect your business from an increasing threat landscape.”
Finding new ways to drive change
Hynes draws a clear distinction between legacy systems, which are old platforms that are out of support, and heritage technologies, which might be old but which still perform a useful function. “Old is not necessarily bad,” he says, when it comes to finding the right blend of systems for optimum digital performance.
Delivering transformation on top of that complex environment can lead to knock-on effects. Hynes and his team ensure new systems are designed with operation in mind, rather than simply the delivery of capability. Change, he says, must not lead to disruption.
Hynes has spent the past couple of years at AIB dealing with legacy concerns. He says his focus during the next three years will be an application rationalization process: in other words, a reduction in the number of applications will help the bank to simplify its IT environment.
Innovative projects rely on strong business cases, where the bank understands potential costs with a high degree of accuracy. Hynes creates a priority list of these well-scoped initiatives. “We have more people asking than we have money,” he says, suggesting a strong governance process ensures the right value-generating projects are picked.
“Technology for technology’s sake is a bad investment. If we understand the business strategy, and we understand what’s possible with technology, we should be able to match the two up. Then we can talk about the art of the possible and focus on what we might be able to do in two or three years. If you can do that, you can filter out the noise.”
Searching for optimum digital performance
Hynes refers to the example of artificial intelligence (AI). While the technology has received a great deal of hype across the IT industry, his organization is now beginning to engage in pilot projects and is figuring out how AI might form part of the ongoing business strategy at AIB.
“Had we got involved in that technology earlier, we would have burned through cash for no return,” says Hynes. “We keep abreast of change but we don’t fall under the wave of expectation.”
The role of a modern CIO, therefore, is to embrace change carefully. Hynes encourages his leadership peers to challenge the status quo and to introduce disequilibrium into the system. “If everything’s looking a little too steady, give it a rattle,” he says. “If it’s very rattly, steady it down.”
IT leaders should search for optimum digital performance, while also looking to create a shared vision that other people in the organization can buy into. When the right kind of energy is in place, Hynes encourages other executives to take a step back and to provide the support structure that enables talented IT professionals to work to the best of their abilities.
“A lot of what we deliver as a technology team – particularly in terms of complex IT change – can take a year or two to appear,” he says. “Even though people might be inspired, and might be clear on their objectives, they can still lose their way. As a leader, you must continue to encourage people, so they can maintain their energy.”