When Bob Hennessy had to fire half his team at TNT he was left with an enduring horror of having under-employed staff on the payroll. His solution, when he took over last year as CIO of WestpacTrust, was to institute a resource sign-in model.Hey, you ask, what’s that? Under this approach, staff go to the work rather than having the work follow them around. Consultants go to where the work is, and that is what Hennessy wanted his staff to do. If staff find themselves with no work sitting in front of them, that does not mean anyone can cut themselves some slack and coast for a while.There may be a “few moments on the bench”, concedes Hennessy, who is whipcord thin and who looks as if he only sits down under extreme compulsion. “It is up to the individual to ensure that they are reassigned,” he says.This abolishes the usual New Zealand pattern in which the work filters down through the hierarchies, to be taken up by the various job centres regardless of their capacity at the time.Under the sign-in approach, it is up to the staff to seek out the work that needs to be done. “Needs to be done” is important here because, with his background in low-margin industries like steel and transport, Hennessy observed from the outset the temptation in banking for people to create work just for the sake of having something to do. He describes it as “feeding the monster”.The sign-in approach allows a fairly clear lead-in to answering one of IT’s most perplexing questions, notes Hennessy. Namely, “Would I spend this money if it were my own?” In fact, sign-in is a kind of holy water to the devil of Parkinson’s Law. Instead of work expanding to fill the resources (time) that exist for its completion, sign-in means that it is the resources that will expand to minimise the time required for completion of the work.Hennessy came to IT after shining at mathematics at high school. Then, as a code-cutting trainee with BHP Steel, he found himself becoming increasingly curious about the human dimension.Tiring of the endless numerical logic during an on-the-job training session at BHP, he grabbed control of the whiteboard and inscribed upon it various abstract symbols, inviting classmates to do some out-of-the-square thinking and puzzle them out — and then describe what they thought they saw.Later, as an IT manager, he was witness to a defining incident as a member of a learned audience listening to a disquisition by an associate of James Martin, who then pretty much controlled the industry guru business.The speaker described in a matter of fact tone a system of prodigious capability and all the while the audience nodded in assent to the value of this tour de force of systems implementation.Then, in the same level tones, the speaker noted that such a system with such a performance was not technologically attainable then, or in the near future. It was at this moment that Hennessy developed his own guiding principle: anything he had to do with had to be visibly workable and a demonstrable improvement on what was already in place.Thus, for example, he does not favour abstract discussions about Linux just because it exists. Because something is new does not necessarily mean that it offers an operational improvement on what already exists and is running satisfactorily. “There is a level of expectancy in our industry about what the new thing is going to be. There is this industry anticipation over the new ‘ism’,the new ERP, the new dot-com, the new CRM. This is accompanied by a reluctance to evaluate how useful to the business these isms are going to be. You have to ask yourself, when one of these isms comes along, ‘Is this a hurdle worth confronting?’”Hennessy recalls an occasion when an extremely successful truck operator sought him out for advice on IT. The tycoon was visibly agitated about the investment that vendors were requiring him to make. Hennessy recalls telling the truck operator: “Forget about all the mumbo jumbo. You merely need to know what it will do, how much it will cost, what the return on the investment will be and when it is going in. Pretend you are opening a new depot, in other words.”In steel and transport, Hennessy notes, IT is regarded as a necessary evil. It is not part of the business in the sense it is in banking, where IT — via ATMs — for example, dishes out cash to customers. The extreme scepticism about IT that he encountered during his own 20 or so years in steel and transport made him ultra-sensitive to costs and returns at Westpac. Hennessy was with Westpac for four years in Australia before becoming head of information technology and group head of architecture services at WestpacTrust in October last year.Hennessy believes the banking sector as a whole has created problems for itself by providing over-generous IT budgets. “When you look at industries such as steel and transport with their 2% to 3% margins, you do not see over-generous IT budgets. The result is that all the people involved in IT are starved out from their lairs and forced to share ideas and services. “It’s interesting how meanness in IT budgets forces people to co-operate, which means putting the customer in the middle of everything.”Conversely, Hennessy observes, enriched IT budgets can lead to IT departmental types staying in their own squares simply because they are too comfortable to step outside.
Coming from the hardscrabble world of steel and transport, Hennessy often finds himself wondering about the belief, common in other sectors, that there is a direct correlation between expenditure/capacity and value to the business. “Having the capacity you want does not necessarily depend upon spending money.”Hennessy has broad responsibility for Westpac’s side of the old clearing co-operative Databank, now known as EDS. Much of the Databank programming is still in Assembler, one of the earliest of all programming techniques. Hennessy views the retention of Assembler as an example of the practical commonsense behind the cheque-clearing co-operative.“They could have spent millions and replaced Assembler. But someone saw the commonsense in paying a few hundred thousand dollars instead to train people to maintain it.”The lesson that is still to be learned within the IT sector is that a “30-year-old program tends to be much more stable than one that is 10 years old.”Recently Hennessy’s 16-year-old nephew mentioned to him that he was learning Assembler. “I was extremely pleased. The skill is going to give him a lot of control over his own career. Where did this notion arise that somehow the world is going to blow up because some important organisations are still using Assembler?”Hennessy’s rather complex job title — head of information technology and group head of architecture services — needs defining. He is part of Westpac’s central governance regime in which “dotted and direct” lines intersect on their way around New Zealand and across the Tasman. The EDS (Databank) track, for example, dots its way to Hennessy before assuming a direct line to head office in Australia. In general his bailiwick is in the realm of ensuring that anything involving digital technology works in the way it was designed to work. This extends to WestpacTrust’s relationship role with its mainstay outsourcers, IBM and Telstra.The architecture reference in his title indicates, though, his definite presence on the ground floor in delivering projects of all varieties. Westpac knows and Hennessy knows that projects go wrong, not down the line, but at the very start, often because of flawed hopes and expectations outstripping the ability to economically deliver them.Confucius noted that the longest journey in the world began with a single step. Having someone around at the departure point who studied psychology and philosophy on their way to their university technical degrees will ensure a cool, appraising approach right at the outset. n
Bob Hennessy: Head of information technology and group head of architecture services, WestpacTrust.
Westpac headquarters, and before that 11 years as CIO TNT, Australia.
BHP Steel, IT trainee.
Woonona High School, Woolongong University.
With seven children “on the payroll”.
Jack by Jack Welch. “People forget that Welch had 40 continuous years at GE. He didn’t just happen.”
BMW 328 1995 convertible “bought second-hand”.
Soccer and playing the guitar.
Classical training in violin at Sydney Conservatorium.
Roseneath, Wellington. “It’s so windy I had to readjust my dish four times to receive the World Cup.”
Highly tasked, analytical and people oriented.
Stop defining yourself by the technology. Instead, define yourself by asking, what’s valuable?
Be cruel to be kind — don’t cut any work slack.
Don’t be a dedicated follower of fashion — stick with what’s delivering.