First Person: Canadian Payments Association’s CIO

Few organizations in Ottawa, let alone in Canada or globally, process an estimated $51 trillion dollars annually. But no other organization shares the mandate of the Canadian Payments Association (CPA), the under-the-radar association that operates Canada’s national payments system.

The CPA touches the lives of every Canadian. On a daily basis, Canadian consumers, business and government use various payment methods to purchase goods and services, make financial investments and transfer funds from one person or business to another. We facilitate the clearing and settlement of cheques, debit cards, automated fund transfer and wire transfers on behalf of our members, which includes Canada’s financial institutions.

The CPA systems provide a common systems framework to facilitate these transactions in a cost-effective, efficient and safe manner. The CPA systems also provide a level of risk management when exchanging value between financial institutions. Like our reputation, the CPA’s clearing and settlement systems get limited public exposure. However, the integrity of our systems is a fundamental principle between the CPA and its membership.

The integrity of our systems extends beyond the technology and systems to a strong governance model. The Minister of Finance has oversight responsibility for rule changes and public policy objectives; the Governor of the Bank of Canada has oversight responsibility for the Large Value Transfer System (LVTS); and a 16-person Board of Directors, comprised of elected members from of financial institutions, and three directors appointed by the Minister of Finance.

Getting started

When I joined the CPA almost two years ago, my approach was to focus on the three areas of priority – People, Process and Technology, with people being the most important. Within the first month of joining the CPA, I met with all IT staff, one-on-one. These meetings were informal and allowed me to get to know the staff and for them to get to know me. As well, I got a feel for what was working well within the group and where there was room for improvement. The staff appreciated the opportunity to provide input and share ideas, and it was helpful for me as I formulated a go-forward IT agenda. 

We are somewhat unique in that we are much more than an internal IT service provider – we are an IT service provider to our members and provide critical IT infrastructure to Canada’s financial services industry.

Being a smaller IT organization, there are unique features I’ve had to adjust to. For example, the IT function at the CPA has a staff of 40, and in a smaller organization, individuals wear multiple hats and are more generalists versus specialists; so you sometimes need to leverage the vendor community for those specialty skills. I’ve also found that being smaller means less bureaucracy and this can help in terms of being more agile.

As a direct report to the President and CEO of the CPA, and a member of the Executive Leadership Team, I am not only involved in the day-to-day running of IT, but I am also involved in the development of CPA’s long term payments strategy, which will set future directions for Canada’s payments industry.

I enjoy the breadth of the role; some days are very tactical and technical — while others are more strategic and business oriented.

From products to portfolio management

From the beginning, I looked to achieve some early successes and fortunately, there were several opportunities from a technology perspective. We upgraded our e-mail system, which was not mainstream and several versions out-of-date. As well, our server environment was due for an uplift and instead of simply replacing servers, we took the opportunity to move to a virtualized server environment. Although this meant some up-front investment in staff training and new tools, the returns have been significant.

From a network perspective and something that had a more direct business impact, we implemented a new high availability network service for our members for automated funds transfer and electronic data interchange. With this solution, we were able to not only enhance the existing service but also lower costs for our members.

On a lesser scale, we implemented BlackBerry devices to enhance communications within CPA and with our members (who for the most part use some form of mobile communications device). Implementing BlackBerry devices was low-hanging fruit and a quick win.

We are very focused on ITIL and have made good progress towards improving our incident, problem and change management processes. We resisted the temptation to implement a tool and automate these processes before clearly defining our processes. With our processes now well defined and understood by staff – we are moving forward with phase II to acquire a tool and gain some efficiency through automation.

We also implemented an IT portfolio management approach based on a Run the Business, Improve the Business, and Transform the Business model. For our size, we had too many projects on the go concurrently, which was affecting our ability to deliver quality results, on time and on budget. IT portfolio management really helped in terms of prioritizing our work and creating the right focus on the right issues. We also introduced the concept of Executive Oversight Groups (EOGs) for IT projects to ensure appropriate management oversight. The EOGs have worked so well that we recently expanded the process across the enterprise to include non-IT projects. Combined, these improvements have made it easier to communicate the IT value proposition externally to our members and internally to CPA employees.

Developing a team

The CPA doesn’t just talk the talk. We are an organization that nurtures employees and actively supports and promotes professional development. In 2009, the CPA was named one of Ottawa’s top 25 employers – an acknowledgement we are extremely proud of, and a legacy we will continue to develop.

From a leadership perspective, we follow several key operating principles within the IT division, which include:

• Member Focused and Business Driven – ensure that everything we do provides a business benefit to the association

• Cost Effective and Efficient – ensure that the solutions we build and implement provide good value for the money spent

• Risk Management / IT Security – ensure information and systems meet the highest standards with respect security and recoverability

Selective Outsourcing (“Smart Sourcing”) – ensure that we make smart choices when it comes to outsourcing

Best Practices – strive to follow best industry practices, such as ITIL, 5970 audits

By adhering to these principles, we’ve developed a highly skilled team that is becoming more and more specialized in their knowledge of the payments industry. Ours is a complex business that continues to evolve – finding IT people with payments industry knowledge is a challenge – and keeping them as long-term employees is a priority.

Given that our current clearing and settlement systems are mature – we also need to work with members to communicate where investments need to be made to ensure systems are kept current and responsive to their needs.

We are focused on the day-to-day operations and that our systems are highly available and meeting the needs of members. We have no choice but to do this really, well. And we do.

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