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IT and finance bond at TD Bank pays dividends

TD Bank's CIO of corporate technology demonstrates the power behind a strong IT-finance alliance.

When Glenda Crisp is asked to lay out her technology investment strategy, she doesn't pretend she can answer nuanced financial questions. Instead, the senior vice president and CIO of corporate technology at TD Bank Group relies on the best tool at her disposal -- her finance counterpart, Dale McErlean.

"We actually speak at least once a week," Crisp, who joined TD Bank in 2001, said to a roomful of financiers at the 2014 CFO Technology Conference.

It took some time, however, for IT and finance to speak the same language. McErlean, who joined TD Bank in 2011 and is vice president of finance for corporate technology and shared services at TD Bank, said the relationship initially started off the way she expected -- with IT prevailing upon finance to do the accounting for its technology requests. But, as one year turned into two, "we've really evolved our partnership," said McErlean, who was also at the CFO event.

The IT and finance alliance is vital, both women said, especially for a financial institution with an acquisition strategy and an organic growth pattern that doubled its employee base in 12 years. Today, TD Bank, headquartered in Toronto, is one of the biggest banks in North America, with more than 8.8 million active online and mobile users. IT alone is a 9,000-employee operation (consultants and contractors included); and Crisp, one of seven line-of-business CIOs, oversees a staff of about 900.

The secret behind Crisp's and McErlean's partnership? It comes down to open, transparent communication and trust -- and meeting each other more than halfway.

Glenda CrispGlenda Crisp

When Crisp and her IT leadership team mentioned a need for better technology understanding from their finance counterparts, for example, McErlean took the comment seriously. She began searching for employees who "could converse and speak the language" of technology as well as finance. "It's a bit of a niche in the financial world, I have to say. And we really struggled over time to make sure we were bringing the right level of talent to the table, but it was worth the investment," McErlean said.

Dale McErleanDale McErlean

And when TD Bank instituted a performance objective for all CIOs to produce quarterly forecasting reports with an accuracy of plus or minus 3%, Crisp embraced the challenge by making it a monthly task for her team. "The results were remarkable," McErlean said. "If you look at where we were in the last fiscal year for Glenda's team, she was within 1% forecasting accuracy."

Together they've learned that sometimes finance has to take a leap of faith and trust in an investment with no hard ROI; and that sometimes technologists need to count pennies and crunch financials. Here are two additional projects that benefitted from the Crisp-McErlean alliance:

Technology's quest for the right tools

After several acquisitions, Crisp and her team realized "we hadn't aligned the finance architecture," she said. The IT infrastructure and applications inherited in the acquisitions had resulted in "a lot of clutter," said Crisp, who performs infrastructure and application "refresh exercises" every few years. She started by sitting down with finance and sketching a five-year roadmap so she could best match the IT architecture to McErlean's needs, eventually selecting an Oracle Fusion platform to do the job.

One aim, in particular, was to help McElearn's team, which supports functions such as human resources, enterprise real estate and fraud management, more easily extract actionable insights from data. "Our finance team is very focused on providing that value-added advice to their partners, including myself," Crisp said. "We wanted to make sure the architecture we had was going to enable them."

Crisp also needed to "rationalize and consolidate" items like reporting tools as more and more acquisitions were brought into the fold. "And that all takes time," she said. And teamwork: Finance and IT agreed to decommission 15 applications, which will save the company money. "We have a huge focus on this," Crisp said, adding that the ROI for retiring those apps was "baked into the business case."

Finance also supported IT's "no customization" mandate -- not just for McErlean's team or for the finance department, but for TD Bank in general. If a customization is recommended, it needs to be presented to the steering committee, which includes the bank CFO and CIO. "We would have to defend to a very senior audience why we're doing this," Crisp said.

Instead of customizing the software, McElearn's team has to learn "to change their process," Crisp said. "Our finance partners are taking this very seriously."

The new finance platform goes live in the first quarter of 2015.

Finance's leap of faith

TD Bank's early embrace of an internal social media platform to better connect employees in different states, countries and time zones is a story that's been well documented. What's gotten less attention is the IT-finance partnership needed to get the idea off the ground.

Crisp set out to build a business case, which included consulting McErlean's team on how to document the financials, Crisp said. Typically, a business case like this includes a projected return on investment, but how does a CIO project savings due to increased collaboration from a new technology platform? "I couldn't put my finger on ROI," Crisp said. "We did not commit to a single financial in that case. We couldn't."

From the finance perspective, McErlean called that business case a "leap of faith." "What Glenda really needed from finance was an understanding of what the vision was for the social media platform, how it would help the bank improve employee engagement and really benefit the organization," McErlean said. With signoff from the bank CFO, Crisp and her team rolled out the social platform IBM Connections, which has since been deemed a success by bank leadership.

But supporting the vision wasn't enough for McErlean. She and her team went one step further, becoming an early adopter. Today, "our main finance page has over 2,400 subscribers, and we use it as a primary communication vehicle to deal with all of our business partners," she said. They've even gone so far as to create a resource page for Crisp's team chock full of FAQs, planning templates and policies.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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How is IT partnering with finance at your company?
CIOs should be partnering with CMOs. The back office should be a given.