In financial services IT, sometimes knowing where you want to go is half the battle. "Technology is changing today and is changing at a rapid pace," says Jim Phillips, vice president and chief information officer at Arizona Federal Credit Union (AZFCU). "CIOs today need to be as much strategic planners and visionary thinkers as they are technologists."
And Phillips doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk. Since he arrived at AZFCU (Phoenix; $1.77 billion in assets) in late 2005, his vision has guided a powerful transition in the organization's IT strategy. "We've grown at a very rapid pace over the last five years, and putting in place scalable tools and technologies and looking at some out-of-the-box approaches was important for us to grow and keep up with the growth we had been experiencing," Phillips relates.
In 2006, Phillips set in motion his "7x7" approach -- seven goals he wanted to achieve by 2007. Phillips says he wanted to focus on tactical issues related to IT in his first year at the organization. His aggressive seven-step plan set out first to develop a strategic technology plan and IT committee process. "When I came into the organization we had hundreds of projects, and we really needed to prioritize based on the time, the resources, the costs, and the impact to the organization and to our strategies," he explains.
The 7x7 plan also set out to develop a consistent enterprise approach to project management; set up a disaster recovery plan; improve the reliability and monitoring of the organization's systems; deploy a change and release management process; enhance hardware/software replacement planning; and improve vendor management capabilities, Phillips relates. While even achieving half of those goals would be a busy year for most CIOs, Phillips and his team met and implemented all of them for 2006.
"We were very successful in getting those strategies in place by 2007," Phillips says. For example, as just one supporting metric, he notes that while AZFCU's total customers, asset size, products and system users all increased by an average of 20 percent, the technology environment was stabilized and issues, customer support phone calls and IT help desk calls all decreased by 11 percent.
This year -- Phillips' second full year at AZFCU -- the 26-member IT team is working on a new strategic plan -- "Good to Great by 2008." Phillips says he's turning his sights from tactical to strategic initiatives, and then on to the technologies that enable future processes.
The 2007 plan includes, among other things, creating a single user interface sponsored by the lending business; building out operational and analytical data warehouses; improving change-management capabilities; reviewing disk-based image solutions; formalizing plans for a disaster recovery site; enhancing network monitoring; and replacing problem hardware and software.
In 2008, Phillips says he plans to implement the first phase of the organization's information technology infrastructure library (ITIL) quality program for IT services. He also plans to develop a "high availability" environment for production, including offline processing. Also included in the as-yet-unnamed strategic initiative are plans for expanding project management capabilities; adding optical product offerings, such as signature pads; enhancing tools for "self-healing" network-attached devices; and implementing E-mail archiving tools and processes.
Learning From Experience
Phillips began his career in financial services 20 years ago after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in management. Originally on the business side of banking, he saw a need for his services in IT. "I got more and more involved in the application side of the house just because I didn't see the kinds of services, products and quality that I felt the business groups that I worked with really needed," he recalls.
As a former customer of IT, he says he can empathize with the frustration that the lines of business feel. "The key message for my career and my background is knowing the [internal] customer and knowing what they feel like when something doesn't work or when something works great, and consistently providing that service to them," Phillips comments. "As being one of the business people and being one of those customers, I know what it's like being on the other side of the fence. Really being able to deliver and give them what they need to be successful is something that I understand."
But Phillips concedes there are challenges to delivering on that vision. "The most challenging thing about being a CIO at a midsize organization today is dealing with the rapid pace of change," he says. "That's one of the things I'm wrestling with now."
"Technology continues to evolve every day. Obsolescence is continuing to increase in speed, and I think we're challenged with making sure our organizations are current; [that] they have the tools that they need to be successful, effective and competitive; and to maintain the infrastructure to support the volumes and expectations that continue to change with our customers, as the speed of transactions is expected to increase and the capacity of storage is expected to always be there," Phillips continues. "We have to be able to predict and make sure we meet those needs before our customers are even aware they might need them."
Of course, as technology advances, so do customers' -- both internal and external -- expectations. Keeping up with the ways consumers and new employees communicate, for example, presents another challenge, according to Phillips. "They want blogs and they want instant messaging and they want to be to able to text," he says. "Those are the communication styles that customers today -- emerging populations of young people -- are really comfortable with. They are going to expect these tools in every area of their lives, ... especially banking."
Adding to the challenge is a culture often resistant to change. "It's interesting because a lot of my [internal] customers that have been in financial services for years, ... they are going through this transition and saying, 'Can we deliver banking services over all these new channels? Can we internally deliver communications and communicate to customers and members over new channels?'" Phillips relates. "And I think the answer to that is, it's not whether we can -- it's when can we do it, and how can we do it securely, and let's do it. We know it's coming, and we've got to get there."