The Evolving Role of the CIO: A Discussion with Barclays Africa

I’m not trying to run a typical IT department.Ashley Veasey, Barclays Africa CIO

The Chief Information Officer role is changing as companies face an environment driven by new and disruptive technologies. Ashley Veasey, the CIO at Barclays Africa, discusses how the CIO role is transforming and how companies, especially financial institutions, can use technology to revolutionize customer relationships.

Mr. Veasey joined Barclays Africa in August 2014 after serving as the CIO for Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. Now he’s heading up the Barclays Africa program to grow the technology behind customer-banking relationships in 13 countries across the continent.

Among the changes Mr. Veasey is excited about at Barclays Africa is a new design team, created to be similar to one found at companies such as Apple Inc. The bank is also opening new innovation hubs across Africa.

“My responsibility here is managing all of our technology, all of the technology that keeps the bank alive from branches to ATMs. But increasingly it’s more towards new digital channels,” Mr. Veasey said recently from his office in Johannesburg.

“My role is becoming more about helping our businesses to really understand, to define, what customer experiences we’re seeing in the market changing. My role is evolving from one of keeping the bank alive to actually defining the future of the bank.”

Below is an extended conversation with Mr. Veasey on leadership and on being a CIO in Africa.

Q: How is technology changing the way companies think?

We all need to appreciate the pace of growth of technology will mean that everyone’s daily lives will change. As banks we’ve really thought more traditionally. We’ve really explained or told our customers how they should be banking with us. But in reality we should be reversing and asking our customers, having their ideas and understanding how they prefer to do banking.

There are all these non-traditional competitors out there, so as leaders in the bank, what we have to do is understand that technology will really dominate and take over our world and certainly the lives of our customers, so we have to be very savvy in how we reach out, experiment, find new solutions, test them very quickly, fail them fast, and actually build a culture of failure which is positive of trying things as long as you pick up the next idea and move ahead. That’s what we are seeing with a number of these non-traditional competitors and we want to put Barclays at the forefront of that. And there are number of initiatives we have in place to address that.

Q: Why is the CIO role important in this environment?

Any company that doesn’t have somebody that sits on the executive committee who understands technology or developments in the technology world such as big data, analytics, artificial intelligence, people who can describe to their senior colleagues and leaders the effects of technology such as block chain…if we don’t have that level of input, intellectual discussion, I think any company, especially in financial services, will find it very difficult to survive in the future. Here at Barclays in Africa we have a CIO, a Chief Data Officer, and we’re also creating innovation hubs and will soon have an innovation hub director. We’re creating a number of roles at very senior leadership positions. But that’s not it. Clearly you’ve got to have the intelligence, the people below you, the junior levels to help push that forward.

Q: What are the most exciting technologies that will transform banking in Africa?

If you look at some of the challenges Africans face on a daily basis, take banking for example, there is no bank within several hundred miles. If you’re in the UK there is a bank within a three-minute walk down the road. So the necessity to use technology and innovation is actually in some African countries more important and more relevant than some of the developed markets.

Here in Barclays Africa we’re looking at a whole range, from block chain technology, artificial intelligence, the ability to automate and put rooting decisions in the hands of computers. That enables us to free up our people, to move away from routine tasks and put them in added value positions, working with customers, to understand their needs better. The more routine tasks you can automate, the better that is for both communities

We here at Barclays Africa have created a new team. It’s a design team, a similar concept to what you may have seen at Apple. If you look at the senior employees and leaders Apple has employed over the past 12 months they’ve come from the fashion industry, or from retailers. You don’t find many technicians coming from industry to work for Apple. That’s a concept Barclays is really investigating. We’ve created a design team here that’s run by similar types of people that Apple would have employed and they’re looking at what should the ideal customer experience be. We’re working with our customers to understand what they really want.

Q: How do you see the CIO role changing?

I’m not trying to run a typical IT department. Our ambition is to migrate ourselves away from being an IT department–that’s a very 1980s, 1990s naming convention for a technology department–we want to appear to be a technology department inside of this organization, this financial institution, that just happens to develop banking software. We have an ambition to model ourselves upon a software company. So if you walk inside here in the next 12 to 18 months it will look no different from a Facebook or a Google or an Alibaba.

Q: What leadership characteristics should a CIO have?

We have to remember to get a seat at the table, to be able to talk about new, interesting ideas that are going to determine the future of banking we have to get the basics right first. The number one priority for any CIO is delivering very stable financial services for customers.

We then start to think about how we use technology to determine the future of services and products. The kind of person I see increasingly being put into some of these roles, they’re not necessarily recruiting the traditional CIO. They’re recruiting people from aviation, the military, people from different backgrounds and experiences, people who are used to very quick cycles of experimentation.

I think the CIO also needs to be someone who can reach out and work very closely with our business colleagues. The CIO and his team need to be very tech savvy. But they also have to have the ability to take the best ideas from Silicon Valley or great wonderful start-ups we are working with here in Africa and understand how they can be potentially applied to real business solutions.

I think the role is definitely changing. It’s in a very interesting position right now, linked to where we think banking may evolve to. We’re going to see a big change in the types of technology leaders we see in the organization and potentially the other senior roles, perhaps too.

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