NRMA Insurance technology head Catherine Rusby has some advice for CIOs pushing major IT-based change through their organisations — don’t mention the technology.
Rusby, whose full title is “strategy and technology general manager”, is in charge of NRMA New Zealand’s “Project Endeavour”. Endeavour involves the total re-engineering of the Australian-owned company’s business processes. That encompasses everything from scrapping a regional structure and replacing it with a centralised one (shrinking staff numbers by 20%); culling the number of products the company sells from about 300 to fewer than 20; and dumping its legacy computer platform for a fully integrated Microsoft-based system.
Given the scale of the job, it’s just as well that Rusby can rely on complete executive team support. But she says having that support is no accident; it comes about through describing to colleagues how the activities they care about will benefit from the changes.
“When you talk to colleagues in the language they understand, you’re demonstrating empathy with their concerns,” Rusby says. “The stuff they understand is faster time to market and being able to expand their business. All references to this being an IT project were quashed in the early stages.”
Rusby, who was speaking to a group of information chiefs at an event run by CIO magazine, told them they should acquaint themselves with their organisations’ business plans. The trick then is to make sure the benefits brought by any IT project are incorporated in business managers’ budgets.
“When I first went there [NRMA] I could see the existing systems would not support the business plan,” Rusby says. She was given a “clean sheet of paper” on which to draw up the design of a new system, subject to a few conditions; namely, it had to be “open technology, written this century and server-based”.
A fight she fought and won early on was avoiding having the Australian parent company’s Huron insurance software imposed on her. “We did that by doing the numbers — twice.”
The cost of licensing Huron, or alternatively, running New Zealand remotely through a link to Australia, was enough to overcome the Australians’ anti-Microsoft bigotry, Rusby says.
The New Zealand company is implementing Sirius insurance software, from a UK company of the same name closely aligned to Microsoft. Rusby says the choice was made on the clear understanding that any additional functionality NRMA requires would be added by Sirius.
“Microsoft is aware of this and is bringing its influence to bear on Sirius,” she says.
Rusby reports that the project is proceeding to plan, helped by the fact that nearly all the company’s staff have bonuses linked to its success. She says the key to the whole undertaking is communications.
“I’ve been like a broken record,” Rusby says, reciting over and over again that “this is a business-driven project, not an IT replacement project.”