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Fraction Stations

When Joe Robinson stepped into the role of CIO at Fifth Third in May of 2008, he knew that he was taking on a major challenge. The true extent of the credit crunch was revealing itself day by day, and no one really knew who the next victim of a major loss or writedown might be. With the recent collapse of Lehmann Brothers, it is a situation that continues to this day. While Robinson acknowledges these concerns, his long experience, both of business and technology, means he isn’t getting too rattled. “It has been challenging coming into the CIO role, especially when the industry is under so much pressure,” he tells us when we speak to him at the bank’s offices in Cincinnati “But from my background and the things that I’ve seen, all industries go through cycles. I’ve seen these cycles come and go on the manufacturing side, and it just so happens that today we’re in a down cycle in the banking industry.”
Robinson’s pre-Fifth Third resume includes a long stint at General Electric, where he worked across several business lines. He’s certainly seen his fair share of market turmoil across a number of sectors. A lifetime believer in the power of technology, he’s now relishing some the challenges he’s facing as the organization’s top IT operative. “ It has been extremely exciting coming into the CIO role at this point in time, he says. “There really is no better place for me to be right now. It’s a great role. The organization information technology is essential. It’s the engine that really drives the company so it’s an exciting role to be in and we’re central to moving some of our key Bancorp strategies forward.” These key strategies include delivering on brand promise, improving customer experience, driving productivity and helping the company growing through new products and geographic expansion. In each of these areas IT is an integral component.
If asked, many banks would no doubt espouse similar principles. But we live in the kind of times that can put such rhetoric to the test. As more and more attention is focused on tightening budgets and making quick improvements to the bottom line, investment in IT can get squeezed out. But Robinson is firm that’s not going to happen at Fifth Third. “I think we have a very strong approach to our technology investments and how we decide on what investments to make, and that process hasn’t changed,” he says. “We’re well connected to our business partners. We have very strong relationships. We have a good discipline in translating our Bancorp strategies and the things that the lines of businesses need to do into the right IT initiatives. Of course the credit crunch has factored into that decision process. We do have what I would consider a pretty flexible process that allows us to look at project spending throughout the year and approve different projects based on the current day situation.” Robinson gives the example of some projects in the collections area which were accelerated in response to business needs. After careful evaluation of the business situation it was decided there was case for acceleration. So that’s precisely what was done. Robinson asserts that this process is followed as a matter of course. “Business factors have come into play but the crunch really hasn’t changed our approach,” he says.
Prior to stepping into the CIO role, Robinson worked both in central operations and later oversaw the CRM strategy at the bank. As with all his previous positions, the knowledge he gained has proved extremely valuable in his current job. He explains that the concentration on customer focus has proved an essential factor and that his work in central operations gave him some vital leadership experience. “It gave me the opportunity to really lead a tremendous number of people, he says. “We had 3000 associates in our central operations division all working the company’s back office processing every day. It gave me the opportunity to work more closely with our business leaders, learn more about the banking industry, and really craft a broad strategic agenda that was in line with the Bankcorp agenda.” This centered around focusing on our customer experiences, driving down inefficiencies and enabling the bank’s business partners to grow. “The CRM initiative and these other assignments have really shaped my thoughts as I take on the CIO position,” Robinson concludes.
As an extremely new CIO, the way Robinson handles his first months and years in the position will be key. He’s approaching his fresh responsibilities with gusto and already has a number of plans and initiatives mapped out. “One of the things that I do within the first 90 days or so of starting a role, is to try to create a strategic framework by which I can talk to internal teams, about what we’re working on,” he explains. Perhaps fittingly, considering his earlier responsibility for CRM, customer experience is currently at the top of the agenda. “We have a slew of initiatives in this space,’ he continues. “One that comes to mind is our interactive voice response system for our consumer call center. We just upgraded that. It’s in production and we’re flipping the switch to have all the calls come through that platform very soon, so we feel pretty excited.”
The project has already been generating some positive results. “We’re beating the business case of what we thought we would get,” Robinson explains. “That platform is something that will provide a much better voice system interaction with our customers. They’re going be much more happy with what they have on that platform and it’s going to make us more efficient in what we do. We’re pretty excited about it, and that’s just one example of something we’re working on.” The CIO goes on to detail an impressively ambitious raft of plans that take in mobile banking, processing strategies and electronic check imaging. It’s clear that, despite the rocky period the industry currently faces, Fifth Third is keeping is going to keep thinking about the future. With Robinson at the helm, the bank’s technology setup is will focus on continuous improvement that will help the organization differentiate itself in the market. It will be a challenge that the executive is approaching with a clear sense of purpose. “We have to continue to upgrade and keep current,” he says. “It’s my responsibility as CIO to look internally and figure out ways to make the IT organization more effective.”
We’ll bring our acquired company into the Fifth Third platform and into the fold basically immediately. This allows us to take advantage of efficiencies, but it also provides the acquired firm immediate access to our products and services. We’ve done this time and time again so we have practice and experiences but I think the challenges would be pretty obvious. The whole data mapping and integrity process and customer communications are very challenging and important to us. We try to pay special attention to understand how these customer facing applications are going be transitioned, and obviously we have to train and ready the new team to deal with the new platforms that they’ll be facing when they walk into their banking center on Monday morning. We have a dedicated team that does this job time and time again and when we have no acquisitions they go back to other roles. We manage it across the bank so that while the IT team is working hard on their integration strategies and building the data mapping and so forth the retail teams are working and the communication teams are working. Everyone is working together across one project management office to drive the program to completion. So I think the dedication focus and repeatability of the processes we set up are really the things that drive success. There’s almost a culture around it where we know this is what we do, this is how we do it, and when we announce the acquisitions and we start to lay out timelines everyone just files in line to get it done. It is pretty exciting to watch and I think it’s one of our competitive advantages.
We run ATM processing so we drive over 11,000 ATMs throughout the states and across 11 countries for over 2700 customers. We do debit card processing so we’ll produce cards and we’ll manage the transactions, and we also do network gateway services. So we connect that debit transaction to wherever it needs to go whether it’s through our network or different network like Pulse or Nice or what have you. So those are some of the key services that we provide through that business. As you can imagine we have some pretty extensive network services capabilities within the organization. From an IT standpoint we are known for our technical excellence in this space and we are extremely competitive. Also the work we do, the experience and know how that we gain just helps us manage the rest of our Bancorp that much better. We can leverage economies of scale and just do a better job driving excellence across the IT organization.

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