September 27, 2012

For Joe Reilly, EVP and CIO at Zions Bancorporation, running the Salt Lake City-based bank holding company's IT department is a bit of a different challenge than many of his peers experience. Instead of managing the technology operations at one financial institution, Reilly must oversee Zions' eight affiliate banks in 10 western and southwestern United States. But he wouldn't have it any other way.

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"It's a collection of great banks," says Reilly, who assumed the CIO position at Zions in July 2011. "Our banks are separately chartered and branded so they enjoy the strong local image of a community bank, but our services company offers them the architecture of a much larger bank. The concept is simple, but the execution can be difficult and more challenging."

According to Reilly, the CIO role at Zions ($53.4 billion in assets) has changed over time. "Ten years ago our immediate focus was on operations excellence," he says, including projects such as making "catch-up" infrastructure investments and focusing on change management and incident management. As a result of this focus on operations excellence, the bank was able to reduce the frequency of high-impact incidents in its production environment by more than 180 percent, Reilly reports.

"We got that operational stability in place, and then our focus moved from IT infrastructure to the application portfolio, where we have the opportunity to create business value," he explains. "In the course of that evolution, we went from a traditional internal IT engagement model -- you might refer to it as an order-taker model -- to one that's closer to that of external service provider. We've become more like a product and services company"

That transition was necessary to best serve Zions' eight distinct affiliate banks, says Reilly. But the new service model requires new capabilities. "We now need to have industry insight and thought leadership," he adds. "We need product management expertise from a systems perspective, and relationship skills to work with our affiliate banks."

In general, at both Zions and in the banking industry at large, Reilly believes, IT has assumed a more strategic role within the organization. "It's a role that has evolved," he says. "It now has more of a prominent business focus." As an indication of this newfound influence, Reilly points to new enterprise challenges faced by banks, including the pressure on traditional revenue streams, the rise and influence of social media, intensifying regulatory requirements, the consumerization of IT, and threats of disintermediation from nontraditional institutions. IT, he notes, plays a critical role on each of those fronts.

To help meet some of these new challenges, Reilly and his team have embarked on several key initiatives, including plans to improve time to market and agility, to modernize Zions' core banking system, to invest in data management, and to develop a cohesive payments strategy that would span payments types and lines of business. "We have to keep our finger on the pulse and understand what's happening in the industry," he says.

A large part of that, according to Reilly, entails keeping track of market forces that are playing a role in redefining the industry, particularly as historical revenue streams for banks dwindle. "You talk about things like the social consumerization of IT, changing demographics and the threat of disintermediation [from non-traditional financial institutions] -- we have to pay close attention to all these things," he says.