The banking sector is often viewed as rather conservative when it comes to the adoption of cutting-edge technology. It's not a surprise to many if some banks are still on the IT infrastructure they first started out with years ago.
One bank, however, knew that it had to ditch its archaic infrastructure if it wanted to move with the times. Two years ago, the leading financial group in Malaysia, Malayan Banking Bhd. (Maybank), embarked on a massive IT project to revamp its communications and collaboration infrastructure.
Tunku Alizakri Alias, vice president and head of strategic planning in Maybank's corporate planning department, says the project came about because there was a need for better communications and collaboration within his department. Thus, he made a request for a new messaging and collaboration application for his department.
From 1995 to 2001, Maybank had been using a mainframe-based solution called MemoID. According to Alizakri, MemoID was a product past its shelf life. "Not only was the command line-based interface cumbersome. We couldn't even attach e-mails or get connected regionally," he says.
Fortunately, his management saw the bigger picture upon Alizakri's request. They asked him to implement the change for the whole group instead -- all 400 branches and 23,000 employees throughout Malaysia and around the region.
Having to take on such an enormous task, Alizakri and his team then went back to the drawing board to rethink their approach to the situation.
After much deliberation with additional team members from the information systems and HR department, it was decided that Maybank would now strive to be a "learning" organization.
"All this while, we haven't been able to effectively leverage the vast amount of information and knowledge amassed in our organization. We need to harness that resource if we want to adapt and evolve with our business environment," he says.
For Maybank's vision to be a learning organization to materialize, it has to take shape in the form of an enterprise portal, says Alizakri. The underlying platform had to be revamped, too. Alizakri, appointed as project manager of the now christened Foundation Project, and his expanded team then drew up a blueprint of the interface and content of the enterprise portal.
According to Alizakri, the blueprint outlined three key features that must be incorporated. One of them was the need for better messaging and collaboration tools. Next, is for the enterprise portal to serve as a gateway for various business applications. Finally, a knowledge repository to be installed for storage and analysis purposes.
After evaluating the options available in the market, IBM's Lotus Notes was selected as the underlying platform. Lotus Notes, the pioneer in groupware solutions, met the requirements Alizakri was looking for.
"We chose Lotus Notes because we felt it was a flexible and scalable platform, providing a lot of room for growth. It also worked well with our legacy AS/400 machines, with little tinkering," he says.
Because this was one of the biggest implementation of Lotus Notes in Malaysia, coupled with Maybank's lack of technical expertise in handling projects of such magnitude, IBM Malaysia stationed several staff in Maybank's head office -- Menara Maybank -- throughout the duration of the implementation. According to Alizakri, the IBM staffers were a great help in working out the finer details of the massive project.
The colossal project also meant that it had to be broken down into three phases. The first version of enterprise portal was first deployed from January 2002 to May 2003 as a proof of concept, giving access to 4,300 employees in Menara Maybank, nine regional offices, and 100 sales and service centers in the Klang Valley. During this period, 780 new PCs were installed and 159 PCs were given memory upgrades.
The second phase was then initiated from June 2003 to December 2004 to extend the reach of the enterprise portal to an additional 13,000 employees nationwide. A total of 980 new PCs were also installed.
"The first two phases were really all about getting our hardware infrastructure in place. The main focus went into putting in new hardware and upgrading existing ones," Alizakri says, adding that it was also a period of time for his team to create awareness for the employees to adopt the system.
While the second phase of the Foundation Project has yet to be completed, Alizakri reveals that over 90 per cent of Maybank's offices today are connected to the enterprise portal. He adds that the remaining few are on track to be connected by the end of the year.
The Lotus Notes application is housed in two AS/400 machines -- IBM iSeries 820 and IBM iSeries 870 -- configured for hot fail-over and load balancing at Menara Maybank. The branch offices are connected via existing leased line connections in a star topology.
According to Alizakri, the enterprise portal today acts as a resource center for all of Maybank's employees. With its employees actively utilizing the messaging and collaboration features such as e-mail, calendaring and instant messaging, Maybank was able to save a substantial amount in phone and fax charges. Additional reductions in travel expenses were also recorded.
The key business departments in Maybank also developed business applications such as risk management and performance management tools, and put the gateways on the portal. The congregation of these business applications accentuated further the convenience of the enterprise portal as a one-stop center for all employees.
To cultivate a healthy self-service culture, the HR department developed several HR services and put them online. Employees now have the ability to perform tasks such as claims and leave application, increasing the operational efficiency of the HR department.
One of the main features incorporated in the enterprise portal is the Standard Practice Instructions (SPI), which has "really made a significant difference to the organisation," he says.
The SPI, Alizakri says, is the core component in any financial institution. It is used by staff or tellers to look up specific transaction procedures. In the past, searching through the SPI was laborious as it was paper-based and "one could fill a whole room with thousands of sheets of paper of the instructions," he points out.
"Since we went digital and online, it is easier and faster to make a search and bookmark certain information. Because of this, we managed to cut down our turnaround time. We're also aiming to cut down as much as possible the menial tasks so that our staff can concentrate on more productive work," he says.
In accordance to the specs outlined in the blueprint, a knowledge repository was installed. However, the mining and analysis of data is slated to only start in the next phase of the Foundation Project.
Alizakri admits that with a project of this magnitude and complexity, there were plenty of challenges to overcome. Getting the employees to embrace the system is one example.
"Some employees are just so used to the old ways of getting work done and reluctant to change. Some employees are not very IT-savvy. Thus, to get them to understand the various features and functions of the portal was a difficult task. This is where the training sessions helped tremendously," he says
But even the training sessions posed a challenge, says Alizakri. There was one instance where the training sessions for a particular branch office were conducted before the enterprise portal was connected. Because some employees did not have the chance to apply what they learned immediately, they struggled with the system when it was eventually connected, he says.
"It's part and parcel of the learning process. After we realized what we were doing wrong with training, we made sure the branches were connected first before we conducted the training. It may be more time consuming and cumbersome but it was definitely more effective," he explains.
When the enterprise portal first debuted, there were complaints about the system. Alizakri's team took into account all of the complaints received and from surveys conducted, and were able to tweak and improve the portal as time went on. As a result, the enterprise portal is now into its third revision.
"We tried to address all the feedback we received, ranging from mismatch of colors and lack of icons, to the redundant and missing features. We may not please all of our users but I think we have struck a balance for now," he says.
The next step forward for the Foundation Project is to move into the third phase in January 2005, as originally planned. This phase will see Maybank's overseas branches connected to the enterprise portal. In addition, Alizakri and his team are already evaluating several mining and analysis tools to be used in the knowledge repository.
"Our knowledge repository may just be starting to fill up but by the time we incorporate our analysis tools, we should be able to get results. After that, we can look into channelling the knowledge back to the organization with applications like FAQs and online learning," he says.
Additionally, Alizakri and his team are looking into incorporating customization capabilities in the enterprise portal by utilizing IBM's WebSphere technology. He says that the ultimate aim is for every user to be able to configure the enterprise portal according to their preferences.
"In the future, we hope to have every user having different screens according to their role in the organisation," he says.
After two years of deployment, Alizakri says that his top management feels that the improvements and ROI are more than justified. Although he won't reveal the actual cost of the project, he says that "it's in the double digit millions."
Maybank's top management had faith in the project from the very beginning, he says. "We didn't really expect to see any returns. It was literally a leap of faith that paid off. The best is yet to come," he says.