B of A Tech Chief Bessant on Big Data, Emerging Tech

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Catherine Bessant hates the phrase "Big Data."

"As a term, it means different things to different people, and it creates a black box or a mystery around data," says Bessant, who is head of global technology and operations at Bank of America; the bank's CIOs report to her and she reports directly to CEO Brian Moynihan. "I think making data a black box works against its use. It overcomplicates the topic, when all you're really trying to do is add up the sum of the micro transactions to tell you something you couldn't see" before.

Data can be a distraction, she points out. "Data might tell you that you have a problem that happens only .3% of the time, and you might think you have a process or a platform that's in fully in control," she says. But there could be trends within that .3% that are important. "How do we make sense of everything that happens underneath the surface to turn it into something we can see?"

Rather than Big Data, she would prefer to just use the term "data."

Despite the overhyping and haziness of the phrase, Big Data is important to $2.2 trillion-asset Bank of America, which has been using data analysis to examine customers' branch visits, calls to the call center, chat sessions, and online banking sessions to get a full view of customer behavior.

In one outcome, the bank recently began a multi-market rollout in Boston of an ATM that can perform 80% of teller transactions, including cashing a check to the penny. To handle complicated transactions, the customer can speak to a bank employee live via video chat.

Data was analyzed to determine how people would want to use the new ATMs with Teller Assist and whether it would decrease or increase teller transaction time.

That the bank is deploying self-service kiosks is not too surprising given that Bank of America has closed 260 branches over the past year, or five percent of its total, leaving it with roughly 5,400 locations.

But Bessant says the new machines are not meant to decrease human interaction, but to be an additive channel. "The demise of the banking center has been predicted for a long time, and here we are," she says. "People go to branches for different things today than in the past, but the channel is still highly relevant."

Although she oversees about 100,000 employees (more than a third of Bank of America's total) and a $9 billion technology budget and is just ending a whirlwind business trip, hitting several cities in 14 days, Bessant is warm, relaxed and funny. She helpfully spells out words out for clarity (e.g. hearty vs. hardy) like the former English major she is. She remembers that the last time we met, over a year ago, I showed her my wireless keyboard for my iPad; she went out and got the same one. She demonstrates how her new MyCharge device for juicing up Apple, BlackBerry and USB devices speaks French.

She is keen to share the technology terms she would like to see eliminated from the industry vocabulary. In addition to Big Data, she dislikes the term "the cloud."

"First of all, there's no such thing as the cloud," she says. "There's the virtualization of a lot of elements of a technology stack, such as virtual servers and virtual storage. The virtualization of things that used to be physical is an important set of breakthroughs that have happened for efficiency and effectiveness."

Both terms — Big Data and cloud — needlessly create mystery around technology, Bessant says. "And technology as a mystery is a bad idea." It's harder to align the technology to the business under such a veil and "people don't know how to fund or prioritize technology decisions because we've made them so mysterious." She muses that this is why the average tenure of CIOs in general tends to be short. "Anything that distances technology from the business is inherently self-limiting," she says.

BOFA's STREAMLINING CONTINUES

The IT transformation project Bessant has been working on since she took this job in 2010 is proceeding on track, she says, for its 2014 completion date.

The technology division has been unifying platforms, and has reduced the number of applications used in the bank by 17%. Where there used to be 22 collateral management systems, for instance, now there is one. The bank used to use eight different teller systems and has brought those, too, down to one. Myriad call center and IVR programs have been taken down to a narrow few.

"It's an efficiency play — you're more agile in a marketplace if when you want to implement a change you only have to implement it once and test it on one platform," she says. "We've also continued to make progress modernizing what we do, taking two down to not just one, but two down to best," Besssant says.

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Comments (2)
Great article on a great profile!
Posted by FransRe | Monday, April 29 2013 at 7:06PM ET
Catherine Bessant is an amazing dynamo of a businessperson, and this is a great article about the incredible work she is doing.
Posted by Robert Harris | Thursday, May 09 2013 at 6:20PM ET
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