Australia's banks get IT transfusion

Summary:National Australia Bank took the knife to its long-time chief information officer Michelle Tredenick this week, but was this a reflection of her perceived incompetence or simply a consequence of the manoeuvring at higher levels that seems endemic in Australia's incestuous banking IT community?

commentary National Australia Bank took the knife to its long-time chief information officer Michelle Tredenick this week, but was this a reflection of her perceived incompetence or simply a consequence of the manoeuvring at higher levels that seems endemic in Australia's incestuous banking IT community?

Liam Tung

ZDNet.com.au journalist Liam Tung (Credit: ZDNet.com.au)

It's fair to say Tredenick was caught off guard by the Satyam financial scandal. NAB, like its fellow Melbourne bank, ANZ, was on the cusp of launching its second round of technology cost-cutting by draining its headcount offshore to Bangalore.

It's fair to say Tredenick was caught off guard by the Satyam financial scandal.

Unlike ANZ, however, NAB had also gone public on the overhaul of its core banking systems, which would see it dip a measly $30 million toe into the water in the first year of the project, but plunge $1 billion over five years.

Perhaps Tredenick should never have selected Satyam, but neither Qantas nor Telstra had any better idea than NAB about the Indian giant's hidden problems — the only difference was that NAB was depending on it for what could soon have been a critical cost-cutting initiative.

As for the core banking strategy, was it a poor move on her part? It's too early to say, but if so, then the bank's board should also be held responsible since these decisions are rarely, if ever, made by one person.

A more likely cause of Tredenick's ousting was former Bank of New Zealand CEO Cameron Clyne's ascension to the leadership of the bank. Clyne likely wanted a familiar loyalist by his side when it came to technology, no matter what. As CommBank's David Murray reflected in 2006 (soon after he left CommBank), "I learned that the IT system can make or break the bank".

There are at least two good examples of similar blood lettings occurring. NAB's was reminiscent of events soon after CommBank seconded its New Zealand subsidiary's CEO Ralph Norris to replace Murray in 2006; only back then, the knife slipped into the arterial vein of Westpac's current CIO Bob McKinnon.

Had Norris simply allowed McKinnon a dignified exit, which covered up the real reason for his departure, or was it merely the new CEO wanting to build a team that was loyal to him?

Norris punched a hole through the wall on his arrival with a review of CBA's $1.5 billion IT transformation plan, according to sources who worked there at the time. Six months later McKinnon was out and young-blood Michael Harte was in. Just as Tredenick's last words were "core banking", McKinnon's were "Which new bank?"

Whatever the truth, McKinnon has found that new bank in Westpac. And similar to Clyne's Bennett-transfusion, it's thanks to Westpac's CEO Gail Kelly that he was resurrected to banking sector prominence.

His appointment at Westpac was coupled with the hosing out of old blood, Diane Sias and former group CIO, Simon McNamara. St George's former head of technology, Peter Clare, meanwhile was brought in, as was Brad Cooper, in yet another Kiwi transfusion, which will see the former Westpac NZ CEO head up the $600 million integration strategy with St George, which he is expected to have come up with in a fortnight.

This week's resignation of former Westpac CTO David Backley sheds some light on the conflicting messages that arise when senior executives are concerned. Backley left of his own accord and was well-regarded, Westpac spokespeople said.

Sure, he left of his own accord, but after moving from a strategic role to general manager of application service delivery, is it any wonder why he had taken a self-imposed sabbatical to research the impact of technology on the work-life balance? As Backley had said at a recent conference regarding the matter of whether his new position was a demotion: "You can read into that whatever you like".

But there is cause, and then there is effect. It was well known McKinnon and Kelly worked together at pre-Norrisian CommBank, but what's not known widely is the profile of McKinnon's strengths across business, internal politicking, and his official remit, group technology.

Sources close to Westpac say McKinnon is a take-no-prisoners businessman, while others at CommBank during McKinnon's rein say his crown was propeller-less

Sources close to Westpac say McKinnon is a take-no-prisoners businessman, while others at CommBank during McKinnon's rein say his crown was propeller-less, which might explain Westpac recently hiring IT gun, Sarv Girn. And this is where the picture gets interesting.

Girn, one-time chief technology officer of CommBank, was said to have been a likely candidate for the top tech job there, according to sources. That was until — if this was in fact Girn's ambition — CommBank got its Harte transplant.

Since then Girn has served not as CommBank's CTO, as he was before Harte's arrival, but as its chief information security officer until at least early 2008. With Girn's move to Westpac, he surely takes some sensitive knowledge, having walked behind the curtain of CommBank's $580 million SAP core banking systems overhaul. Or did Harte keep Girn away from the crown jewels after McKinnon landed at Westpac?

Girn is described by some within banking IT as a "genius", a quick thinker who can wrap his head around a bank's systems faster than you can say the words "Which Bank?" and would surely be a good ally to McKinnon, having worked with him before.

NAB's blood transfusion, meanwhile, is still streaming across the Tasman as Adam Bennett clears his Bank of New Zealand desk to rejoin his former boss, Cameron Clyne. NAB appears to be in a holding pattern over the issue of Satyam, but like Tredenick, Bennett will need to lance the bank's rising technology bills and find an alternative to Satyam, to complete its second wave IT offshoring to Bangalore.

Which brings me to the mystery of ANZ. What is it doing? Why was Peter Dalton assasinated as the CIO? Did he do something wrong? Was he a weak leader? Does the bank even intend to replace him? All we have heard so far is that it wants to cut technology costs, and plans to use its Bangalore release valve to expel around 2,500 litres (500 IT staff) of blood by the end of the year.

And the merry-go-round continues.

Topics: Banking, IT Employment

About

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, s... Full Bio

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