Q&A: Rene Keller, Swiss Life
- Outsource Q&As
- On May 6, 2011
René Keller is Chief Information Technology Officer for Swiss Life AG, Switzerland’s largest life insurer. Ahead of his appearance at the Corporate IT Exchange 2011, taking place May 8-10 in Munich, we spoke with René about IT as a business enabler and coping with a challenging talent landscape…
Outsource: René, thanks very much for your time today. Let’s start by taking a look at the topic you’re speaking on at the Corporate IT Exchange 2011: “IT as the Modern, Flexible and Innovative Business Enabler”. Do you feel that IT is now genuinely becoming accepted as a business partner within large-scale organisations? And if so, what have been the drivers behind this encouraging development?
René Keller: Yes, absolutely. The time is past when information technology was just seen as a significant cost block on the balance sheet. It’s been widely recognised that IT must operate as a significant enabler for business agility and innovation. Boundaries of enterprises are required to be flexible as entire business services are to be provided externally or business services are to be integrated seamlessly into the current business processes. Many new business models are only possible because of innovative usage of IT capabilities.
We also see that the boundaries between IT and business organisations become in some areas blurrier or, to put it differently, collaboration becomes much more integrated. IT is therefore being looked at and required to drive innovation and to act as an advisor to the business. As a consequence, you see more and more CIOs in executive boards reporting to the CEO directly with responsibility for driving the innovation agenda.
O: You’re going to look at some strategies for keeping costs down – yet increasingly we’re also hearing that CIOs and CITOs globally are being asked to present IT as a potential profit centre as well as a means of driving savings. How can IT genuinely contribute to the bottom line and how far are you working in this way within your own organisation?
RK: IT investments still represent a major part of the direct or indirect business costs for an insurance company. So managing costs and driving IT efficiency is a major part of the job description for a CIO or CITO – and it’s here to stay. We wanted to change the mindset of the entire organisation to be more focused on the success of our business. We have decided to “run IT as a business”. This means some substantial changes to the culture and to the way our IT organisation will be run and led in the future.
Client orientation is the first important aspect, which includes genuine and deep understanding of the business. It’s about providing advice on how IT investments can be made most effectively. Agreeing on adequate service levels and providing the right level of service is key, as well as the possibility to directly influence IT costs.
The second important aspect is market orientation, where all IT services are cut in a way that they can be benchmarked in order to allow appropriate sourcing decisions. This will drive transparency and cost efficiency. And the third area is our employees who need to be focused on performance and success, i.e. to be empowered and to be made accountable at the same time.
O: Moving away from the specific content of your presentation and looking at broader trends within IT for enterprises, what do you see as being the main drivers for change over the next few years? I’m assuming the “cloud” word is going to pop up at some point…?
RK: The topics on my mind are indeed cloud computing, mobility, social media and talent management. With cloud computing it’s about extending the value beyond virtualisation and making use of fully integrated and scalable services. Preparing for it and picking the right time is key here. Making best use of social computing requires innovation and creativity in order to take advantage of the huge potential out there.
Mobility is obviously another major theme to be mastered, not only for clients but also for your workforce within the company to be able to access IT services with any device anywhere. And then I have talent and skill management on my mind, which is absolutely key for our knowledge-based industry to be successful.
O: Are you concerned about the size of the talent pool available to IT organisations in the west – especially considering the rise in anti-immigration and anti-offshoring rhetoric in some key markets? Do you feel the next generation of talent is sufficiently prepared for the rigours of global business?
RK: The next generation of talent seems rather well prepared as they are growing up in a global world using all the communication and collaboration instruments available. Changes will need to be made to bring the rest of the IT organisation along to embrace the new methodologies and technologies. And I expect that in Western Europe we will be faced with a shortage of skilled resources sooner rather than later. We therefore have to master sourcing as one of the key disciplines in IT. This could be outsourcing and focusing on core competencies, it can mean collaboration with external providers, which require solid standard processes and, last but not least, integration of standard services.
O: What are going to be your biggest challenges over the next business cycle within Swiss Life Ltd?
RK: For Swiss Life in Switzerland the highest priority is to get our Group Life system fully replaced, which is an extremely complex task. Our goal is to completely renew the technology as well as introduce agility by using agile application development methodology, which can be used for the rest of the organisation. Another focus will be on offering business services through portals for the various sales channels. And, last but not least, we want to team up with our business units to drive innovation and make best use of internal and external ideas and resources.
O: Finally, what are your ambitions over the next few years?
RK: My goal is to transform the IT organisation into a lean and agile organisation that runs IT as a business. Flexibility in all areas is in my opinion going to be key. For example, we want to allow our business units to steer the usage of IT services by determining service levels and their costs. We want to increase IT efficiency to provide our business with an attractive cost base and, of course, we want to deliver our solutions in a very agile way. And, last but not least, I want to provide my IT colleagues with development paths and education to ensure they have the required skills to be successful.