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Powering technology transformation with cultural agility

Jonathan Kennedy, the investments technology director behind Standard Life Aberdeen’s IT merger, talks transformation, technology, talent management and cultural complexity

Set against a backdrop of technological innovation, evolving customer expectations and a stringent regulatory environment, the Standard Life Aberdeen merger completed in August 2017. But this is one transformation that remains firmly in the spotlight.

Underpinning the group’s investment business, which manages a portfolio of more than £500 billion, is the Herculean task of merging two IT infrastructures over three years. “As a regulated financial business, we have a duty to strike the balance between delivering change for the future, while maintaining ‘business as usual’ to protect and serve our customers,” says Mr Kennedy. “Essentially, we’re servicing a jet aircraft while it’s in flight. That demands people with the quality and calibre to cope with an incredible volume of work.”

Harnessing the skills and talent to deliver this complex task is a primary concern as is leading that talent effectively. “You have to be totally focused on prioritising the outcome,” he says. “If you don’t adhere to that principle, you risk wasting huge amounts of time, money and capacity. Iterative, agile working is extremely useful to break a monumental workload down into manageable chunks, but across those agile principles there must be strength and clarity of leadership driving the overall goal. It’s like an orchestra. Everyone has their own instrument to play, but to produce the music you need a conductor.”

Injecting partnership expertise from other sectors and larger programmes is a very effective way of developing your core competencies

Behind this overarching principle lies a level of transformational complexity that represents the predominant challenge in Mr Kennedy’s role. “When you’re working on a merger like this, you inherit a rich and diverse talent pool in terms of skills, backgrounds and experience, but it does make the talent management side extremely demanding,” he says.

“We adopt a creative blend of skills development, from graduates trained specifically in our systems to refresher and coaching training for our IT leaders. The technical skills are relatively easy to embed. It’s by focusing on the softer skills in our teams – listening, negotiating, asking open questions, challenging, establishing a ‘fail fast, learn fast’ culture without threat of reprisal – that we’ve developed the edge.”

Internal talent has also been augmented with the input of partner organisations which, Mr Kennedy explains, have an invaluable role to play in shining an interrogative light on the IT transformation strategy.

“Injecting partnership expertise from other sectors and larger programmes is a very effective way of developing your core competencies,” he says. “These consultancies have the capacity to pilot in with fresh eyes, offer a provocative perspective and introduce new ways of thinking that reach beyond the historical mindset. It doesn’t mean that we don’t trust our own people. It simply means that we remain open minded to the possibility of new and better approaches, which can then be embedded into our internal capacity.”

The overall picture highlights the changing role of IT in business. “In IT, our mission to get closer to the business has actually been going on for many years. Now we must challenge the business to get closer to the technology,” says Mr Kennedy.

“This is a hugely exciting time for IT as we experience an unprecedented convergence of technology ecosystems. Digital connectivity, cloud, mobile technologies: they’re all revolutionary, but none of them function fully in isolation. It’s the explosion of technologies operating in synergy that drives opportunities. It’s our responsibility as IT specialists to educate the wider business, to get stakeholders and leadership excited about what’s possible, to shift them away from costly, immovable ‘crown jewel’ legacy systems and into a new era of faster, more cost-effective and secure transformation. If we can crack that, we’re well on the way to harnessing the commercial potential that tomorrow’s technology offers.”

Standard Life Aberdeen’s IT transformation is supported by Mason Advisory. Find out more at www.masonadvisory.com/

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