The way chief technology officer Colin Crook sees it, reengineering Citicorp's huge systems infrastructure is a project without a completion date.
Though his efforts to rein in Citi's sprawling computing and networking operations in recent years have already won applause, Mr. Crook doesn't seem ready to rest on his laurels.
When it comes to using technology to reduce costs or exploit Citi's global opportunities, he said, constant tweaking is part of the job.
"The real goal . . . is to find out how to carry out this kind of change without it becoming chaotic, while also being able to deliver services and offer functionality," Mr. Crook said. "We have to be able to deliver things and at the same time be able to change as new technology is being developed."
As Citicorp's top systems honcho, Mr. Crook arguably has one of the most complex jobs in U.S. banking. The bank won't tell how much it spends for systems and networks, but industry insiders believe it is more than $1.5 billion a year.
Since Mr. Crook came aboard, Citicorp has reduced its network of data centers from 240 to fewer than 60, consolidated communications networks, and reduced its heavy dependence on software created in-house.
Analysts estimate that Mr. Crook's diplomatic yet dogged management has reduced expenses by hundreds of millions of dollars since he joined the bank from Data General Corp. in 1990.
"In the last 15 years, industry has poured a lot of concrete and cement over everything called 'systems,'" Mr. Crook said. "All that did was substantiate the process in a specific software - and once it was created, it could not be changed.
"We have squeezed out a lot of extravagance from the operation, but what really needs to be done is to change the process."
David Berry, director of research of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, praised Citi's senior management for having focused on the nuts and bolts.
"The whole thinking behind the use of technology has changed in the last three years," Mr. Berry said, "and it is evident by the increases the organization has seen in efficiency.
"There was once a feeling that they needed to do everything. They are now willing to go outside, and have started to leverage technology across the board."
Mr. Crook said Citicorp has become an institution that can keep on changing.
A main objective has been to consolidate internal networks so all operations could be linked and information retrieved fast throughout the organization.
"If someone wants to see what is going on in Sydney, Australia, while they are sitting in New York, the network will tell them what is going on, because it touches everything," said Mr. Crook.
The "eyes of the network" give a true picture of what is going on in the organization, he said.
Because it relies on a global network, the bank faces many challenges in ensuring that operations are efficient and can handle any problems that occur.
"We use to run a series of networks around the bank," Mr. Cook said. "Now we run routers, (networking equipment) which moves the information faster and more efficiently throughout the bank."
In addition to consolidating the systems, he added, Citi is transforming them to use the most efficient technology."
Having "squeezed out" excesses over the last three or four years, Citicorp is in "the next round of optimization," Mr. Cook said.
He said management is taking a more deliberative approach to unifying systems as it looks to downsize its operations.
"We are looking at the consolidation in a more structured, more thoughtful way that is driven by a real attention to downsizing risks," said Mr. Crook. "We are trying to figure out what is critical, what is needed, and how the consolidation will effect the organization."
One benefit the bank has seen from its streamlining and consolidation is a stronger ability to operate as a global organization. It has been able to view its U.S. and European operations as participants in a common marketplace.
"The business units understand the notion of processing between Europe and the U.S., and the operation has become more efficient," Mr. Crook said. The global networks help provide "the ability to gain control of the technology" so the bank can operate and manage from its existing structure more efficiently.
Another big change Mr. Crook helped nurture has been toward sharing ideas with the rest of the industry about where technology is going. Such sharing would have been heretical at Citicorp just a few years ago.
In last 18 months, Mr. Crook has worked to create two cooperative forums in the banking industry: the Smart Card Forum, a group working to come up with standards for intelligent cards with embedded computer chips; the Financial Services Technology Consortium, which is exploring the use of electronic commerce.
"We had a severe case of hubris," Mr. Crook said, and becoming more open with other banks "was very painful for us." Now Citi is working to adopt uniform standards, rather than go off on its own, he said.
"We have a great deal of respect for people in the industry, and it is quite evident from the discussions we have had that we can learn a lot from each other."
Craig Goldman, Chase Manhattan Corp.'s chief technology officer, said the smart card and electronic commerce forums have created a sense of camaraderie in the industry, a feeling of working for the entire community.
"All organizations, regardless of size, are faced with many challenges when it comes to sustaining technology," Mr. Goldman said. They want to roll out "bulletproof" systems, he said. "The forums let us be creative and help us to define fundamental standards that benefit the entire industry."
Mr. Cook says Citi's infrastructural fine-tuning helps it and its strategic partners understand what it takes to do business in the global marketplace.
"Many of our partners are getting a fine appreciation of the skills that are needed," he said. "To run a global operation, you cannot operate in an authoritarian way, (but) you need to operate in manner that allows the organization to be managed consistently, end to end, across the globe."
Consistent service through consistent processes means more efficient service, Mr. Crook said.
"We are able to offer customers the same banking experience across the globe," he said. Citi is implementing "an unrestrained view of customer information across the globe.
"We know how to do it,"Mr. Crook said, "but we are not there yet." And getting there, he added, is "a painful journey."
Last year Citi instituted technology standards across the consumer bank. Now it is in the process of shifting to a common technology set, which would include hardware and operating systems.
Mr. Crook noted that each of Citi's geographic operating sectors is allowed to implement systems according to regional imperatives but must follow strict architectural guidelines.
Four years ago, management decided the bank needed to come up with a process for systems development. As a result, every business unit has gone through a software self-assessment to determine what should be done to bring the systems up to date.
The process "has allowed us to bring our costs under control while improving the efficiency of the business units," Mr. Cook said.
Citicorp found that self-assessment helps it decide what to create in- house and what to buy, he said.
"We are much more inclined to put standard software on personal computers and use standard technology, instead of building proprietary systems," Mr. Crook said.
"There is a willingness of the software vendors to develop the software applications that we need and understand the tradeoffs that go along with using an out-of-the-box application."
Citicorp's use of local and wide area networks has grown explosively. The result, Mr. Crook says, is that "we are able to deliver functionality extremely cost effectively.
"Over the next few years we will be looking at what should be on the mainframe and what should be on the client server," he said. "We have learned the costs associated with client technology are extremely high, because the infrastructure is not there.
The industry is in for several years of turbulence, he said, as it "sorts out how to manage the technology and reconcile efficient mainframe and client/server management."
Mr. Strachman is a freelance writer based in New York.