She might not be a technology wonk, but Janey Place quickly is becoming NationsBank Corp.'s systems guru.
As head of the bank's strategic technology group, Ms. Place is, in essence, an in-house consultant. Her work ranges from the consolidation of back office and branch computer systems to experiments with software applications and Internet and intranet activities.
She has spent the last year building a 95-member team that will guide NationsBank through the technological maze of the future.
Given her background, Ms. Place's presence and status at the bank could be surprising to some. She has worked in banking only about six years; much of her career was spent as an academic - focusing on work group theory and semiology, the study of signs and symbols.
But to many, Ms. Place is a symbol of banks' changing attitudes toward strategic planning.
"Companies in every industry, including banking, are struggling with how to put together information systems," said William Arnold, technology consultant for Towers Perrin Group of New York. "No one has found the right answer yet."
Ms. Place said she believes her strength lies in analyzing how groups interact. In a bank, this translates into the ways various business lines can cooperate to achieve a common goal, she said.
Her strategic technology group is less an assortment of information and technical specialists than it is a consortium of bankers drawn from various departments - marketing, operations, telecommunications.
She knows charting the technological direction of a bank the size of NationsBank will not be easy.
"Banks are very dependent on legacy systems," she said during an interview at the bank's headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. "There is a law of adequacy at work. Certainly, the screwdriver retarded the invention of the paint can opener."
But, experts said, NationsBank's $1.4 billion technology budget attests to its commitment to keeping pace. And the existence of Ms. Place's group shows the bank recognizes that lifelong bankers are not necessarily equipped to chart the technological course of a modern bank.
Other banks are setting up similar groups, because top executives are finally realizing the importance of technology.
"It reminds me of the early days of computers, when the technical people didn't necessarily understand the business," said Carl Faulkner, a bank technology consultant at MOne Inc. in Phoenix. "Now banks are trying to set up groups to pull these two areas together."
NationsBank's team will act on an ad hoc basis. "Our involvement might be initial contact with the business lines, or assigning a team to work on a project with them," said Ms. Place. "Later, we act as consultant as the project moves forward. We're not going to raise the baby, though."
Born in Hawaii, Ms. Place came to the mainland in the early 1970s with interests as varied as marine biology, filmmaking, and opera singing.
She studied semiology at UCLA, earning her doctorate in 1975. Her published writings include two books: one on movie director John Ford's westerns, the other on women in film noir .
After six years in academia, Ms. Place broke loose, deciding, in her words, that she would rather learn than teach. She obtained a master's degree in business administration in an abbreviated MBA program for doctorate students and took her permanent place in the world of business.
"Years ago, it would have been so foreign to me and to anyone that knew me," she said. "An academic's reaction is 'how could you leave?'"
But her consultative powers were quickly put to use, first at Tasco Oil Co. and then at Hughes Aircraft. In both places, Ms. Place gained exposure to how an enterprise uses technology, she said.
In 1990, she made her first foray into the world of banking, joining Wells Fargo & Co. as a strategic planner. In many respects, her role at NationsBank will mimic the work she began at Wells.
"I managed telecommunications and helped create a group there that we are also creating here," said Ms. Place. "We bridged the gaps between the lines of business at Wells and the service company."
Ms. Place readily admits to reservations about leaving Wells.
"I still love Wells Fargo. They were very ambitious in what they wanted to do," she said. "But I was so impressed with the strategic direction that had made NationsBank the No. 3 institution."
And, she added, NationsBank chief executive officer Hugh L. McColl "knew the bank had to change direction. That's very unusual."
It was the opportunity to work closely with Mr. McColl that persuaded her to make the move. "For someone who's interested in systems, it's wonderful to work in this big shop," she said. "Mr. McColl bounces ideas off people. We talk about what we see coming ahead."
Lately, her group has focused on electronic banking. NationsBank has joined 14 other North American banks and International Business Machines Corp. to create a home banking consortium known as Integrion.
The Internet is also a topic of concern. Ms. Place's group is examining, among other things, whether NationsBank will be able to offer account transactions through its World Wide Web site.
Down the road, Ms. Place hopes to become more closely involved with the various business lines as her group gains in stature. "This is a real transitional time. As we grow in value, we'll have more opportunities to bring that breadth of knowledge."