news Bank of Queensland today revealed that it is deploying a new software as a service-based customer relationship management system which would deliver it a dramatically simplified and flexible platform for dealing with customer accounts, with the technology reported to be supplied by US-headquartered vendor Salesforce.com
In a presentation associated with its annual financial results released today, the bank said it was currently implementing a new CRM system for front-line staff. The platform was a “low cost front-end system” which would deliver “enhanced sales performance & improved workplace efficiencies”. Among other benefits, it would cut down the number of procedures required by staff to create new accounts and service them from 128 to 42.
In addition, it will feature a better ability for branch staff to focus on sales activities, and will free up resources in Bank of Queensland’s branches by removing some existing processes. The benefits of the project will start to be felt in the 2013 financial year, according to the bank. iTNews has quoted Bank of Queensland chief executive officer and managing director Stuart Grimshaw today as stating that the new platform is based on Salesforce.com.
In its presentation, the bank explicitly highlighted the ability for software as a service-based platforms, which are operated by vendors themselves and delivered through a web browser to customers (as opposed to being delivered from and maintained on a customer’s own IT infrastructure) to require a “smaller investment” and “more flexibility”. However, perhaps due in part to the project, the bank’s annual IT expenses still rose over the past year – up 13.9 percnt to $76.2 million year on year.
The news of the deployment is likely to place Bank of Queensland in a position of interest on the part of the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority, due to the nature of Salesforce.com’s technology, being a cloud computing service delivered from offshore. The vendor does not currently operate datacentres in Australia to serve local customers, with most in the Asia-Pacific region being serviced from Japan. Although a number of Australia’s major financial services organisations do make use of offshore cloud computing facilities, their use of such facilities has been closely regulated by APRA.
In November 2010, for example, APRA issued a blunt general warning to the entire financial services sector regarding cloud computing services, warning that the “innocuous” nature of such services could mask hidden concerns about offshore
In an open letter to its entire constituency issued at the time, APRA wrote that the use of cloud computing was not yet widespread in the financial services industry, but several organisations were considering, or already utilising, selected cloud computing services — with examples including email, instant messaging, scheduling, collaboration and customer relationship management applications.
“While these applications may seem innocuous, the reality is they may form an integral part of an institution’s core business processes, including both approval and decision-making, and can be material and critical to the ongoing operations of the institution,” Puay Sim, the regulator’s general manager of its supervisory support division, wrote.
Sim added that the institutions it regulated “do not always recognise the significance of cloud computing initiatives” and “fail to acknowledge the outsourcing and/or offshoring elements in them” — which could be a risk. “As a consequence, the initiatives are not being subjected to the usual rigour of existing outsourcing and risk management frameworks, and the board and senior management are not fully informed and engaged,” the public servant said.
A scant few weeks later, in December 2010, Salesforce.com fired back, hailing APRA’s warning as evidence of cloud computing’s maturity and growing adoption — rather than as a potential problem for the nation’s financial sector. “The letter is an acknowledgement that Australian financial services institutions are rapidly adopting cloud computing — just like their counterparts in North America, Europe and other parts of Asia – and need to be judicious in their deployment of cloud services,” the company wrote at the time. “APRA’s guidance will help assure that as the Australian financial services industry moves to the cloud it adopts best practices for IT continuity, confidentiality, integrity, and compliance with legislative and prudential requirements.”
APRA has, however, gradually modified its stance on the issue over the past several years. In September 2011, for example, the regulator appeared to take a more practical approach to cloud computing in comments at the time, focusing on the need to classify data to understand what data was actually being handed out to cloud computing providers and what level of sensitivity could be associated with that data.
Well, well. Finally, after years of interest but not much action, finally we’re seeing the deployment of a mainstream cloud computing service in a core area such as customer relationship management in a major Australian financial services institution. Australia’s banks and insurers have been toying with this kind of deployment for years, but when it has come down to it, even banks as technologically bleeding edge as the Commonwealth Bank have shied away from deploying Salesforce.com in a frontline capacity.
Part of their reluctance to do so has been the obvious wariness of regulators such as APRA, which have taken a highly conservative approach to cloud computing over the years. And part of it has been that the banks themselves have been nervous about handing data offshore into public cloud computing environments where they couldn’t control every aspect of the deployment.
BoQ’s jump into the online CRM waters with Salesforce.com, in this context, represents a rather brave move. But it’s not premature. BoQ is a smallish bank by the standards of the big four, and in a context where it’s actually made a small loss this year, it makes sense for the bank to try innovative solutions to try and help it cut costs and become more flexible. It makes sense for the bank to pursue this approach – after all, it has worked well for its fellow bank in Queensland, Suncorp, where BoQ managing director Stuart Grimshaw used to be a non-executive director.
Then too, you can see how the bank’s group executive, IT and operations, has been able to get executive-level buy-in for the move. Nilon was been with BoQ for a total of 16 years and has gradually worked his way up the ranks to his current position; I’m sure Grimshaw, in turn, has sat through quite a few presentations from innovative Suncorp CIO Jeff Smith in his time. And BoQ also boasts Michelle Tredenick (who readers will remember as the former CIO of Suncorp, NAB and MLC) on its board, as well as another former Suncorp CIO, Carmel Gray. With this kind of in-house and board-level talent, it should be easier to get executive-level support for innovative IT deployments.
I will be fascinated to see how far BoQ takes this deployment (and I’d love to know what APRA thinks of the fact that customer data will be stored offshore). With all the core banking migrations going on and major financial services groups like ING Direct virtualising their entire core banking infrastructure, it’s a fascinating time to be covering Australia’s banking IT sector.
Image credit: Salesforce.com