What has been the most difficult task financial services firms have faced over the past 20 years? One could easily make the case that it hasn't been moving to service-oriented architecture, suppporting multichannel delivery, improving data security or adopting analytics -- all daunting challenges for banking executives at particular points in time. No, I think the most elusive goal has been the effort to attain the holy grail of IT/ business alignment. The industry has been questing for this for years, and while there has been progress -- executives on both sides of the table are better at "talking the talk," and senior management undoubtedly is more appreciative today of the critical role technology plays in the business -- the fact that we're still discussing it in 2011 tells me we have a long way to go.
Our recent examination of innovation in the industry shows how the IT/business relationship is the foundation of successful change and transformation. "Innovation is a team sport," stresses Jane Edison Stevenson, co-author with Bilal Kaafarani of "Breaking Away: How Great Leaders Create Innovation That Drives Sustainable Growth -- And Why Others Fail," a new book about innovation in business. When it comes to sustaining a corporate culture of innovation -- as opposed to the more common "culture of fear" -- "You're only as good as your weakest link," Stevenson says. "We all win or we all lose. It's about getting people aligned around what's possible."
In banking, Stevenson emphasizes, innovation cannot happen without the IT organization. "It is your R&D," she says. "You can't deliver products in financial services without IT to support them." However, within the aforementioned culture of fear is the culture of finger-pointing, where it's more about casting blame when something goes wrong than it is about partnering to share -- and hence minimize -- risks as well as rewards. "A culture of fear will create the pointing of fingers as opposed to 'We all win, or we all lose,'" Stevenson adds.
We all win, or we all lose. What a simple and persuasive way of thinking about internal partnerships and collaboration. Yet egos, politics and budgets typically obscure this message, as the fallout from the global financial crisis continues to demonstrate. When innovation is viewed as a zero-sum game it's inevitable the outcomes will be disappointing. It's time for bankers to change the equation.