LIA TIMSON May 28, 2012
Experimental approach to app development... Westpac CIO Clive Whincup. Photo: LT
A little more like Google, a little less like a bank, say chiefs.
Despite cutting several hundred jobs and being accused of planning to offshore the majority of its IT operation, Westpac technology chiefs say the development of new mobile applications and innovative solutions for the banking group must be handled in-house.
Chief information officer Clive Whincup and chief technology officer Jeff Jacobs used a technology media briefing last week in Sydney to unveil two new iPad apps developed in Australia by a team of about 50 staff. The team, comprised primarily of former St George Bank developers and additional personnel, bases app features on insights garnered from consumer and user behavioural research.
The Broker App is to be used by mortgage brokers to evaluate customer's eligibility for loans and to calculate repayments, while Tabula is exclusively for the use of board members now that the banking group no longer issues paper documents ahead of board meetings.
"We've grown the team quite rapidly with our own staff. We're not relying on contractors. We think a lot of the innovation comes from the intimacy between the developer and the business community and the customer workshops we run. You can't get that when you ship (a brief) overseas," he said.
Westpac axed around 150 IT jobs in January and March, after sending roles offshore. According to the Finance Sector Union, since 2007, more than 6200 jobs have been relocated offshore by Australian banks and financial companies.
But only last week, Westpac-owned St George reneged on a plan to outsource another 200 IT jobs to IBM, the leading outsourcing vendor in Australia, according to Gartner.
"We found the best way of growing this team is doing what we are doing. We've had no problems attracting people. It's about selecting the right people, new employees, graduates or people within the organisation who want to get into this space. We want to focus on people who have very good technical skills but also very good interpersonal skills. "
Jacobs said the St George app team had been developing mobile applications for two years.
"The St George iPad app came out on the day the iPad [device] came out. People forget [that]. For a while we've seen [mobility] as an area we need to focus on."
Whincup said the group had elected to continue its core banking channel strategy of deploying new systems such as tellers in the branches and a contact platform in call centres and online, at the same time that it developed a mobility strategy based on trial and error.
"We're opted for an adaptive, suck and see approach to incremental developments. We believe this is the way going forward: small innovations, small feature sets that make the composite whole."
He said the bank was happy to try several new apps for staff, brokers, board members and customers, including mobile payment, to see what had potential to succeed.
"It's an experimental approach to development. That is how companies like Google have done it. Gmail was in beta for many years. That is their approach. That is the most interesting thing that Google and Apple can bring [to business]. It's a mindset shift.
"We expect some to become quite popular and some not to catch on. It's a kind of incubator-type approach," Whincup said.
Westpac now has one million active mobile banking customers, taking the total number of group mobile customers to 1.3 million. The group has applications for mobile banking for the iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry, although it does not expect to develop many new apps for the latter.
"We don't see any growth in BlackBerry use. The strategy is to support whatever the customers are using," Jeff Jacobs said.
"We look very carefully at how people interact with the device. The mobility phenomena is really about how people interact with different form factors and what types of applications the form factor suits," Whincup added.
The Broker app was originally developed for the Bank of Melbourne, but now comes in eight iterations to suit different brands. It can be downloaded by users from the Apple App Store and will eventually integrate with the various banks' CRM systems. Tabula, on the other hand, can be downloaded but not activated on board members' iPads until it is installed by a member of the IT team to ensure security policies are applied.
Jacobs said his team was watching other technology developments with interest, including the "future of connectivity". On his watch list were internal pilots of bring-your-own-device (BYOD); the rollout of the national broadband network ("as an enabler for a whole bunch of things"), big data analytics; social networking and video, among others.