Throughout the business world, information managers are prized for their technical expertise, but are also often dismissed as "techno-jocks" who don't contribute to the bottom line.
The information technology team is center stage when your system malfunctions, but often is relegated to the back room when the company's long-range planning or problem solving takes place.
Since the dawn of the computer age, employees have been divided into "technical" and "nontechnical" types, each recognizing the other's value but having minimal day-to-day interaction. This has led to a balkanization of the office, preventing many businesses from employing technology in smart ways to meet business objectives.
This state of affairs cannot last, particularly in the banking business. How a bank uses technology to manage information is central to its success, influencing cost reduction, revenue generation, and ultimately shareholder value.
Neither adequate funding nor technological innovation alone can advance any technology strategy without forming a business partnership. Technology professionals must understand not just their own field but the company's business objectives as well.
Fortunately, at many banks, including Bank of Boston, the old thinking is being replaced by a commitment to integrating technology into all aspects of business. In its role as technology strategist and solution provider, the information technology department must be a stakeholder in the businesses it supports.
Bank of Boston has successfully put this theory into practice. In the early 1980s Bank of Boston's technology was on a par with most other banks' systems. But, as at many other banks, the end users of the technology had limited input into its development, often requiring a "back to the drawing board" phase until the system met the business unit's requirements.
To prevent this time-consuming and inefficient process from recurring, Bank of Boston merged its technology and systems operations divisions to form the technology and systems services division. This cutting-edge approach to technology uses a cross-functional diversified team strategy to pair a senior information technology staffer, called a relationship manager, with each of the bank's business unit management teams in a "partnership program."
The relationship manager serves as a member of the business unit's staff, while still reporting to the technology and systems services division.
Together, they map out and implement a technology strategy to help the business unit meet its business and information objectives.
Relationship managers bring expertise from within the technology and systems services division to the business units to identify new solutions and strengthen ongoing projects.
Relationship managers are assigned to business units based on their experience. A consumer banking systems manager, for example, works with the consumer lending and retail banking lines of business. The relationship manager and other technology and systems services staff attend business unit "priority committees," chaired by the senior business executive, where technology initiatives are prioritized, goals set, and action plans put in place to ensure they meet the unit's business objectives.
As business unit managers face new challenges, they can rely on one technology partner to help them navigate the murky - and crowded - information systems waters.
In turn, staffers serve as catalysts for new technology initiatives by bringing the full suite of technology offerings to the business units, as needed.
The technology and systems services division maintains a skilled information systems staff that can draw from a wide range of experience. Instead of assigning information technology personnel to projects or departments on a long-term basis, Bank of Boston encourages the formation of cross-functional diversified teams.
By moving people to different business units and projects, employees develop a variety of strengths and skills that can be called upon for future projects.
The partnership program was put to the test last year, when Bank of Boston acquired six banks. Using the program model, the bank formed teams of employees to consolidate and convert the six banks to Bank of Boston's systems and practices.
For every new acquisition, these technology and business unit teams were mobilized quickly, ensuring a smooth process, In fact, the conversion of two non-Massachusetts banks was completed during one weekend. The end result was a large pool of employees skilled in the consolidation and conversion process.
Today, as new challenges arise at Bank of Boston, specialized teams composed of technology and business unit representatives emulate the model established in 1994.
Two of the larger initiatives under way at the bank - the retail workstation, a state-of-the-art technology platform to reshape the sales and service environment for frontline service professionals and customers; and the teller project, a client/server-based system for all New England branches - are benefiting from the Partnership Program as the technology and systems services division and business unit managers organize and operate project management teams.
While Bank of Boston's individual business units benefit from weaving technology strategies into their plans, all lines of business share certain key objectives that cut across the strongly diversified market segments and product lines.
The most important of these shared objectives is customer focus. Technology can improve customer focus by providing information on what customers want and need, and by making products and services more flexible, tailored to their changing needs and preferences. At Bank of Boston, our new integrated technology strategy helps us understand and exceed customer expectations.
Technology has been used for years to reduce costs and enhance customer service, but the potential of today's powerful infrastructure, incorporating image, text, voice, and pervasive communications capability, is only beginning to be realized. The effective technology strategy at Bank of Boston will increasingly involve this powerful infrastructure to enable flatter, more flexible, and more team-oriented organizations to get work done better, faster, and cheaper.
And in today's uncertain, ever-changing banking environment, those are competitive advantages we can take to the bank.
Mr. Lezenski is chief technology officer at Bank of Boston Corp.