Many banks are talking about simplifying complex processes and architectures, but ING DIRECT abides by simplicity as a core operating principle. As CIO and SVP of IT at Toronto-based ING DIRECT -- the first of the nine ING DIRECTs that Amsterdam-based ING Group has launched over the past 10 years -- Brenda Rideout is charged with making sure that technology helps the bank stay true to that concept. "We don't have a lot of products. We try to keep them simple so we can bring the automation into play," she says.
IT is considered a core competency within CD$22 billion-asset ING DIRECT and "an enabler to the business," explains Rideout, a lifelong Torontonian who joined ING DIRECT in 1999 following stints in IT roles in insurance, mutual funds and retailing. "Our business model is to provide value-added financial products to all Canadians," she says. "To achieve this, we've automated as much as possible. This lowers our operating costs and allows us to pass these savings on to our clients, via rates and services."
Accordingly, customers who log onto www.ingdirect.ca can view their products and transactions online, "whether it's an investment savings account (ISA) or completing a mortgage application," Rideout says. "You can actually track the progress of an application. Behind the scenes, all of this is automated, using technologies such as workflow."
Of course, many Internet-based banks have come and gone since the dot-com boom of the late '90s. What has ING DIRECT done differently? According to Rideout, it's all about "staying true to our values." So while it was clear that being Internet-based would support the concept of simplicity, "We also have our telephone services," she says. "We pride ourselves on answering the phone very quickly, and being able to address clients' needs there, just as well as we do on the Web, so that people have that ability to talk to someone if that's what they wish to do." Also, ING DIRECT's cafes (four small banking centers located in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Montreal) enable face-to-face interaction when that is desired.
The bottom line is that regardless of channel, everything is simple for the customer, Rideout explains.
However, keeping things simple while also enabling the bank to respond to market trends is one of the biggest challenges Rideout faces. "In the early years our challenges were more growth and capacity related," she relates. "Year over year we were doubling our client growth and exceeding corporate targets, so from a technology standpoint there were strains on systems and capacity. In 1999 we had approximately 200,000 clients -- now we have just over 1.5 million."
That growth has required the bank to astutely expand its product portfolio. In 2004 the ISA was joined by a mortgage product, and additional mortgage offerings are under consideration. "We're looking at the industry to see what new types of products our clients might want," Rideout says, adding, "But, again, we're not planning to have a whole large range of products -- our niche is the simplicity."
Another consequence of growth has been the need to focus on architecture. Before service-oriented architecture was a hot topic in the banking industry, Rideout was leading an aggressive initiative to put SOA concepts into action. "In 2000 we conceptualized and began implementing an architecture that today would be characterized as SOA-like -- there was no such thing as SOA at the time," she says.
With a goal of linking technology more directly to actual business processes, the bank created focus groups involving 10 of the company's top phone associates and two vice presidents. "We worked to identify what the ideal bank would look like both from a process and systems perspective," Rideout reports. "We identified that we wanted a single user interface, and we wanted a common set of business services to be able to address client requests in the same manner, for all products, regardless of channel. If a client had just been on the Web and then called into the call center, we wanted to be able to see that transaction and aid them in any way we could."
The result is what ING DIRECT calls its Direct Gateway, "which today would be called an enterprise service bus or SOA," Rideout adds. Concurrently, the institution developed a customer contact management system called WEBTOP. "It is one of the truly Web-based contact management systems in the market today," Rideout says. "It is truly integrated with all of our telephony systems and our back-end systems." The first phase of the architecture -- which was built internally in partnership with IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) and FileNet (Costa Mesa, Calif., now an IBM company) -- was rolled out in 2002, and an enhancement took place in 2004 concurrent with the introduction of the mortgage product.
The ongoing enhancements in access have created a whole new set of challenges for ING DIRECT's IT organization, which totals just over 100 professionals (up from 26 people when Rideout joined the bank). "Twenty-four-by-seven, 365-day access [is] transforming the industry," Rideout says. "Consumers expect to be able to do any transaction 24/7." The implications for IT, she adds, include building redundancy and backup into all operations and processes.
The New Face of Security Threats
Not surprisingly for the CIO of a direct bank, Rideout says she is more focused than ever on security. "It is much more challenging than it ever used to be -- not only because of security itself, but also the fact that security and hackers used to be university kids in their basements, and now we find it's much more organized crime -- there's a monetary benefit. So locking your doors and windows internally is one thing, but it's also educating your clients," she observes. Last year ING DIRECT implemented a two-step security process (requiring customers to register their PCs and create special messages that will identify them if they are logging on to the accounts from a remote site) designed to strengthen security and prevent phishing attacks on customers.
One challenge that Rideout does not share with many of her peers in the industry is that of attracting and retaining IT professionals with leading-edge skills. On this count, she says, "We've been pretty fortunate -- we tend to attract people. Part of it is because we're using a lot of state-of-the-art technology. We don't have any mainframe systems, we don't have legacy systems."
Rideout thinks the ING DIRECT culture also inspires employee loyalty. "We've had very low attrition in the organization, especially in IT," she says. "A lot of us who started in 1999 are still here. We're passionate about what we do; and we work diligently to promote a culture of advocacy, a passion and a can-do attitude."