The CIO Interview: Annabelle Bexiga, TIAA-CREF

Headshot_09.05.2012_A. Bexiga

Annabelle Bexiga

“Innovation is everyone’s job,” Annabelle Bexiga, EVP and CIO at TIAA-CREF told me recently. “The most mundane thing,” says Bexiga, “even stacking servers in the data center, can be innovative if you can think of a different way of doing it.”

Contrary to repeated predictions heralding the end of IT innovation, IT is now synonymous with the ever-changing technological landscape of all aspects of our lives. It is also synonymous, for the most part, with business innovation, as IT transforms all business activities from operations to manufacturing to customer relations.

At TIAA-CREF, the IT organization is innovating in support of the growth and expansion of the business. Founded in 1918 to provide retirement services to university faculty, TIAA-CREF is expanding to provide a wider range of financial services and establish a growing presence in other not-for-profit sectors, including health care, research, cultural organizations, and the public sector.  It is already one of the largest pension funds in the U.S., with $520 billion of assets under management, serving 3.9 million active and retired individuals, in addition to institutional investors, retirement plan sponsors, and financial planners.  

Scott Blandford

Scott Blandford

There are at least three important components to ensuring that innovation is everyone’s job: Motivating employees by connecting them to a larger mission; being open to completely new ideas and influences; and encouraging disciplined experimentation. Innovation is especially a challenge in big companies with large IT organizations where everybody specializes, says Scott Blandford, CTO, Retirement and Individual Technology at TIAA-CREF: “It is very easy for people to say, ‘I just do this one little piece,’ and lose the connection with customers and how it all works together.” But in her organization, says Bexiga, “everybody works on delivering the whole thing.” Most important, they know and understand the “whole thing,” and Bexiga reminds me of the story about President Kennedy visiting NASA: “He asked the man sweeping the floor, ‘what do you do here?’ and the man answered, ‘I’m sending a man to the moon.’” She adds: “It is getting everyone, collectively, behind the mission.”

How do you help people see the big picture? “Communication cannot be overdone when it comes to this,” says Bexiga. Among the communication vehicles she uses are monthly town halls with business executives. An important individualized approach is letting IT staffers watch their internal clients at work.  Another way to connect IT people to other IT people and IT to the business and everybody to the overall mission is putting together an internal “IT expo” for the entire organization. A recent one was organized by mid-level IT managers who did everything from assembling teams to putting together the agenda and the booths.

While seeing the big picture is important for motivating all employees, it is embedded in IT’s role and position within the organization. Says Bexiga: “We have brokerage services, banking, and life insurance.  We are moving very quickly with new offerings in each one of those product lines. Building up our assets is valuable, but connecting them together is even more valuable.” IT, with its end-to-end view of the business, is in a unique position to help. As a result, “we have had a number of huge wins this year,” says Bexiga. “We see what everybody wants and what everyone is doing in their businesses.  We take these inputs and we create an efficient technology engine across all businesses, instead of each business creating their own thing.”

IT is not only an engine for reducing redundancies and increasing efficiency and productivity, but also an engine of innovation. As with many other IT organizations today, the “consumerization of IT” and the success of IT-driven Silicon Valley companies had a strong impact on IT innovation at TIAA-CREF.

An example of such innovation is the Unified Desktop recently developed and implemented at TIAA-CREF. “Our call center consultants have lots of applications and content that they need to sift through on their desktop,” explains Blandford, “and they have to do it all very quickly.“ The challenge was to create an easy to use and easy to update interface to all applications rather than create one monolithic application and convert all existing applications to it.

The solution has “taken a page out of the consumerization of technology book,” says Blandford. In this case, the page was taken from Wikipedia.  The idea was to make “everything a person can do on our internal desktop look like a topic in Wikipedia,” with all topics (or applications) adhering to the same interface requirements and style guidelines. “We took a bunch of different applications, built on different technologies, and started making them all feel like one.” And just as with Wikipedia, “we distributed the work.  Now I do not have a single team as a bottleneck; the work is federated and everybody’s innovating.”

If they tried to build one big system to incorporate all the existing applications, says Bexiga, “We would still be talking about the plans right now.  Instead, we brought in a new way of thinking and a new burst of innovation, and we quickly–this did not take long at all–created a very lightweight, scalable platform, leveraging the systems we already have.” The idea for the project came up during a visit to Apple and talks with its CIO. But it was adapted to TIAA-CREF needs. Moreover, when a consumer application is implemented in an enterprise context, it leads to further innovation. On Wikipedia, unlike at TIAA-CREF, there are no transactions. So the IT team is trying to evolve Wikipedia to the next level, incorporate transactions and eventually even expose TIAA-CREF customers to the platform.

Today, the IT environment of financial services companies is not insolated as it used to be and includes anyone in the world with Internet access. In this new world, innovation is driven not so much by the need to stay ahead of competitors, but by the need to stay ahead of the consumer Web.  Blandford: “Innovation on the Web is not coming from big banks.”

As a result, the IT team at TIAA-CREF saw the need to change how their customers on the Web were generating reports. As is typical for financial services companies’ websites, the user had to key in certain criteria such as a time period and wait for the system to generate the desired report. Instead, the Web team at TIAA-CREF thought they should emulate Amazon or other online retailers, where the left side of the page displays selection criteria and clicking on these criteria immediately changes what’s on offer on the right side of the screen.  Blandford: “We went out and bought the same technology that drives these e-tailers’ guided search and we implemented it for our next gen-reporting solution. It is the only one in the industry that works like this and our clients love it.”

Encouraging people to push the envelope in this manner requires the creation of “a high-trust environment for people to be willing to make mistakes,” says Blandford. Training in “breaking the bad habits,” is one way to ensure that being afraid of making mistakes does not stand in the way of innovation. Says Bexiga: “It is okay to be making some mistakes, but we want it to be more of a fail-fast environment.  Do not wait to the end of a very long project to find out we made a mistake; find out right away.” Adds Blandford: “We say that ‘we are on the quest for top speed.’  Top speed here is the theoretical upper limit of how fast we can build things without causing problems.”

Fast moving, open to new ideas, advancing the user-experience on the Web, getting employees excited about the big picture and “outcomes that matter.” Sounds like ingredients of the culture of Silicon Valley are energizing IT organizations everywhere, creating new outposts of IT innovation.

[Originally published on]