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The good oil

Bupa's information services director, Peter Powell explains why data is the new oil that keeps the wheels of business turning
Peter Powell, information services director, ANZ, Bupa

Peter Powell, information services director, ANZ, Bupa

“Giving the business the freedom to be the business” is what Peter Powell sees as his main task.

Powell is information services director, ANZ, with health insurance, aged care and health services firm Bupa. The organisation is a branch of the UK-based global healthcare organisation (formerly named the British United Provident Association), that was established in 1947 when 17 British provident associations joined together to provide healthcare for the general public.

Bupa has only recently entered the Australian market under its own brand, following the acquisition of health funds HBA (Victoria) and Mutual Community (SA) in 2002, and MBF in NSW and QLD in 2008.

The combined might of these funds, with benefits paid out of about $4.1 billion, puts Bupa marginally behind the market leader Medibank, which paid out $4.3 billion in benefits last year.

But the size of the organisation and the acquisitions over the last decade are not all that he has had to face. Powell says Bupa is more than health insurance, also covering care homes, health services and analytical services, and it has only recently reorganised its Australian and New Zealand operations, under the ANZ Market Unit banner, into a cross-discipline organisation covering all of those activities under one roof, one managing director, and one IT department.

Whereas there were no specific differences between the Australian and New Zealand operations, it’s the different cultures that exist between health insurance and health care which mean that it is the executive level’s job to bring the formerly separate units to understand the role of each other and exploit the white space in between.

They should work together to a single purpose, which he says is to help customers live longer, happier lives. To this end, Bupa does not have shareholders, and any profit made is ploughed back into the organisation and its service range.

“IT needs to think about the customer,” Powell says. “We help to shape the technology, and understand that it’s a tool for the business. One size does not fit all, so we have to make sure it is put to an appropriate use for the circumstances.

“IT is a business within a business; my team understands that, and it’s the leadership responsibility, in whatever capacity, to look across the whole unit you’re leading.”

Reaching that understanding has been a journey for Powell.

From his school days, he always knew he wanted to work in IT, and at that point he planned to be an IT director by the time he reached 40. He admits that that age might be seen as a bit late in life these days but, leaving school and going straight into IT, it seemed like a reasonable long-term ambition.

UK-born, he first joined British Coal’s Compower which, at the time, was the largest computer bureau in UK. It had a substantial training program, which set him on the road to reaching his goal (which he did before he turned 40).

However, that road wasn’t always straightforward.

“As I have moved through my career, there have been defining moments – some planned, and some thanks to good fortune. But one particularly good moment for me was a step backwards. My move to my first role in a telco – application development manager at Mercury Communications – was one of the most career-shaping.

“I moved through the organisation very quickly, and I was exposed to other people at both management and employee levels, and I quickly understood that it was the business rather than technology that mattered.”

For instance, at the National Westminster Bank in the early 1990s, he was responsible for rolling out a laptop program to bring the insurance and mortgage businesses together. “This wasn’t just a tech rollout; it was a business issue. The tech fulfilled a business need.”

He says it is vital to stay close to the other execs (literally in the case of Bupa ANZ’s CFO, whose office is next to his).

“We see opportunities to exploit the data, the other C-levels see the potential benefits of technology. It’s a collaborative situation. They ask, ‘Can tech supports this?’”

“We look at latent capabilities and ask, ‘What opportunities would work within the business?’”

And it’s the data where Powell sees the biggest opportunities.

“Big data is one of the three key areas today. [The others he sees as cloud and mobility.] Data must be joined across the inside of the organisation so customers can access it – it’s what they expect, and what they want to access wherever they are.”

“Data is the new oil,” he says. “Whoever mines it most efficiently will get the best opportunity of taking the business advantage.”

It’s this business advantage that colours his view of systems like CRM. In fact, he doesn’t see CRM as a ‘system’ at all: “It’s a strategy of how you want to deal with a customer; it’s not the system. You can’t just buy a CRM ‘system’ and expect to be properly serving your customers and the business.”

And business is the challenge for CIOs.

Enterprise technology has seen significant rationalisation over last 10-20 years, he says, adding that the CIO’s role is about providing services in a variety of ways, some of which are still unclear.

“Can we imagine what cloud will be like in five years? Mobility? What data and services will need to be gathered, analysed and provided? This means changing your thinking.

“CIOs will have to do this. Keeping a holistic view and ensuring that the data is connected is a challenge. You need a framework to deal with that challenge. You need to understand customer behaviour and needs.”

To that end, and as much for personal reasons as for professional ones, he is looking beyond his original tech ambitions. He’s now considering the benefit of other qualifications, looking to further education, such as an MBA, to take him even deeper into the business.

From there, he can continue to develop the good oil, and make sure the wheels of business continue to give the organisation the freedom it needs.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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