The Five Minute CIO: Allianz Ireland’s Karen Forte on ensuring IT meets business goals

31 Aug 2012

This week Karen Forte, CIO and Head of Services at Allianz Ireland, shares her thoughts on technology trends and strategy.

Do you see your role primarily as a technical one, or a business one? 

Primarily business as I’m heavily involved in informing the company strategy and facilitating its objectives.

Given that Allianz is an international organisation, how much autonomy do you have in terms of IT strategy or choice of vendors?

Increasingly less autonomy in particular in aspects of IT Infrastructure as this has been provided as a shared service since January 2010. Application development and acquisition is still a local decision but the latter must take the global standards into account although derogations are possible if the business case supports it.

What is your main IT project for this year? 

We are progressing the migration of all our web development to .Net. This involves re-engineering our B2C, Bancassurance and potentially our B2B offerings. This project straddles over the year-end boundary and is being tackled in phases.

Can you give an example of a recent technology you have implemented that’s really delivered business value? 

Several around process automation have yielded substantial benefit, and another around anti-fraud in the claims proved very effective.

What has been the hardest challenge – from a technology or a business standpoint – since you took your current role?

The first major challenge was to adopt an off-shore development model back in 2000. This has served us very well in the interim, but looking back it was hard for staff to make the transition.

The second and more recent large challenge was to devolve the control for the provision of IT infrastructure to a captive subsidiary of Allianz based in Munich. This was achieved in 2010 and it resulted in 22 staff being delegated into the captive.

For me, the loss of direct control for incident handling and provision of new platforms was a personal challenge initially. Over time this challenge has diminished as the arrangement works well and the relationship with the provider is strong.

At Allianz, does the IT department contribute to the overall organisational strategy? 

Yes, we have a major contribution to the direction of the organisation as awe underpin many of the key initiatives whether they relate to top-line growth, efficiency or service improvement

Can you give an example of how IT has made an input into a recent business decision? 

We participated in a tender for a significant business account by putting forward an IT solution which would reduce the admin overhead on both sides and deliver straight-through processing through workflow automation.

In many organisations, IT is often perceived as lacking the skills to understand the business and its direction: what can other CIOs do to get to this strategic level in more organisations? 

CIOs must understand the business and what the organisation does and how it does it. Understanding where the business is headed allows the CIO to suggest the best way of getting there with technology and process and sometimes to suggest opportunities that can be created. These are not so much technical skills but much more general business skills.  

Is your 2012 IT budget increased, decreased, or the same as last year, and how will that affect your priorities? 

The budget is fairly static and the priorities are agreed/informed by quarterly meetings with the board of management. The most deserving business cases win!

How would you describe your own approach to IT – is it just a cost to be controlled and delivered as cheaply as possible, or can it really help businesses to innovate and do things differently? 

It’s a balancing act between the two. The clever thing is to recycle savings to power innovation.

What’s your opinion of cloud computing: vendor hype or business revolution? 

I think that there is great scope for selective adoption of cloud. If you see it as a tap to turn capacity on and off as required, then it can be truly powerful. Say for example you want to quickly spin up an environment to test a potential opportunity, then you can avoid the long-term commitment to that set-up if the idea proves unattractive.

I would have concerns over public cloud for corporate data because of security concerns but have deployed private cloud solutions quite extensively where the security aspects can be managed.

Do you intend to use cloud in Allianz and if so, will it be public, private or hybrid cloud? 

Hybrid approach, on a case-by-case basis.

Bring Your Own Device to work: a logistical nightmare or a trend to be embraced? 

It’s the way things are headed. Generation “Y” who are being employed now are impatient with traditional corporate devices. Once the corporate systems and data are protected through appropriate controls and policies to avoid contamination, leakage or loss from the personal activities of staff, then it makes sense to give staff the freedom to choose the device that makes them most productive at work and at home.

How much of your IT is in-house and how much if any do you outsource? 

Projects office, application development/maintenance, security administration, risk assessment, librarian/DBA, and software assurance are in-house. IT Infrastructure, operations, desktop, service desk and legacy code development are outsourced activities.

Do you anticipate that percentage will change in the near future? 

Small change, as big changes have already happened

What do you think the future holds for IT leaders – how do you think the role will change in the face of trends like cloud computing? 

The role is definitely changing, and looking outside your own organisation for trends is important. Sometimes other industries are doing interesting things with technology that can influence what you can or should be doing. The role is one of facilitation: allowing the business to meet its objectives and suggesting smart and efficient ways of achieving same.

How are you preparing – yourself and your team – to deal with this change? 

The team and I have already shown ourselves to be very adaptable, embracing fairly seismic changes on a number of occasions. Having a good team with a strong bond of trust is essential to keep the IT function evolving as the business needs it to. Recognising success and learning from problems helps maintain a positive working environment.

Gordon Smith

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years