The five minute CIO: Paul O’Neill, Irish Life Corporate Business

25 Jul 2014

Paul O'Neill, head of innovation at Irish Life Corporate Business

“We see mobile technologies as the perfect window to keep customers engaged with their pensions funds,” says Paul O’Neill, head of innovation at Irish Life Corporate Business in Dublin.

Prior to his current position, O’Neill served as head of IT for Irish Life Corporate Business, now part of the Great West Life group of companies.

In recent months, O’Neill spearheaded the launch of mobile apps aimed specifically at people with defined contribution and additional voluntary contribution schemes administered by Irish Life Corporate Business.

He has been with Irish Life for more than 35 years. Since 2000, he has overseen the running of IT and change functions.

During his tenure, there has been immense growth in the importance of this and as a market leader, strong investment has been made by Irish Life to stay that way. O’Neill has overseen the €40m invested in IT at Irish Life since 2006.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology rollout across your organisation and the improvements it will bring to the company?

Our IT applications and infrastructure support everything we do in Irish Life Corporate Business. All of our business processes, productivity improvement and customer initiatives, such as smartphone apps, are dependent on having the right technology in place.

My role is head of innovation and change. As soon as you mention pensions people tend to fall asleep. But they are important and it is important for people to realise the earlier they start pensions the better, so we’re focusing on younger demographics, too. We believe smartphone and social media technologies provide richer customer experiences. I’m in the industry 30 years and I know people struggle to look past all the compliance and technical jargon to get real information. Our stats prove that smartphone users interact more with their pensions – they are looking more often at their funds and those are the people who are contributing more and have built up bigger funds than people who don’t interact.

We’ve built our apps on iOS and Android and we’re currently developing a tablet-based version. We’ve had our website live for a number of years, and underpinning that is masses of servers and data-collection processes.

What are the main points of your companys IT strategy?

The key focus is on delivering ease of use and interaction both for our customers and staff. We do this across a number of platforms, from smartphones to rich web applications. Our ultimate aim is to make IT solutions highly available and efficient.

We are part of Great West Life and a lot of the underlying technology is handled by European Technology Services, who are based here in Dublin, and that covers Ireland, UK, Isle of Man and Germany. All the virtualisation and the standard efficiencies and toolsets in data centres is part and parcel of what we do.

In terms of administration, we have invested heavily in productivity tools. There is very little paper in the organisation, everything is captured and imaged and available online. Even down to everyone having double screens on their desk. We have invested a lot in administration to have effective and accessible information at the hands of our workers.

Being a corporate pensions operation looking at the business day primarily rather than the consumer day, it’s a 7am to 10pm focus. We found, for example, that we’ve had 77 people logged on to on New Year’s Day. People use our infrastructure at all times of the day.

We have significant infrastructure and operations to keep up and running and all of that comes out of European Technology Services here in Dublin. We’ve a data centre here in Dublin and one in London.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

Large and complex! Our IT functions are supporting over 500,000 customers, 300 staff and more than 100 brokers across Ireland.

Our systems cover the people servicing the businesses in Irish Life, partners and brokers. There’s quite a few customers – trustees, brokers and members of pension schemes. It is quite a complex customer requirement in terms of having a very rich website for a pension consultant to get at our data, as well as being efficient for the end customer who is interested in how much is in their fund. So we have to have a broad range of applications and channels.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

Obviously it’s important to keep an eye on costs but it’s more about the value that IT can add than the cost.

All financial services providers over the last number of years have had to become more conscious of cost. We have maintained investment in applications over the course of the economic crisis. We’ve been constant in the level of investment in our IT infrastructure and applications.

Pensions is a long-term business and what we advise customers of pensions is generally don’t panic in the downturn because it is a long-term savings plan and we’ve taken a similar view on IT infrastructure.

Don’t slash when things get tough but we didn’t go mad in the boom either.

My job is prioritise that level of investment and make sure we are doing the things that add value every year.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

It is important to have the right skills and people in-house but outsourcing has its place for the right projects.

Within Great West companies in Europe there are approximately 400 technology people. My team is 40 people roughly covering the range of business analysts, programmers, and project managers. In terms of outsourcing for the right projects, take apps development: when we started developing apps we didn’t have those skills in-house, so we outsourced, but in the right way. We always ensure one or two of our people worked on it so skills were transferrable.

Secondly, in terms of outsourcing or not we might decide we still don’t have the right level of skills. If it’s not a skill we want to have in-house we are going to outsource. There are certain niche apps that we have that we’ve taken the view that in a 230-working-day year we are just not going to have enough work to have somebody employable on that. Strategic outsourcing – if you’re not short of people, do it for the right project and reasons.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

Getting people to engage with pensions – plans to use smartphone/mobile technologies and social media.

I think big data in the financial services industry is a trend to watch. We have masses of data and masses of customer interactions. And we keep that data for a long time. Without sounding Big Brother, we know lots of things about our customers, but big data, predictive analytics and behavioural economics will become a large part of what everyone does, not only in financial services.

The cloud is becoming ubiquitous and we’re constantly being asked is it going to be cheaper to run cloud or buy the kit.

It’s the constant strain between consumer computing and enterprise computing. As consumers get onto the cloud, they will expect to get everything when they want it and where they want it.

Do you have a bring your own device (BYOD) policy at Irish Life?

We currently proscribe our technology but we are starting to debate the BYOD idea. I think insurance companies tend to be conservative by nature and it might be awhile yet before we do embrace BYOD. But we have wireless on the floor and people can connect to that for personal use and keep it separate to corporate data. That barrier will come down eventually.

I love my iPad and others love their Android phones and they are comfortable with that.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

You can get too caught up in this – if the customers of IT are happy then IT is performing!

Are there any areas youve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

Getting closer to, and understanding the business that IT is supporting is probably the biggest area where IT can improve.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

Further investment in our mobile strategy. Absolutely. We see the mobile and always-on channel as a way of engaging with people and I would see more and more targeting applications at those channels and platforms, certainly for the end consumer of products.

You can see information on our apps but we will ultimately get into some transaction processes. There will be quite a few challenges but we will get there. We’ve certainly found that if it is on their smartphone, people will use it and therefore we’ll continue to invest in that channel.

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