How CIOs can become leaders in their industry

When I joined The Options Clearing Corporation (OCC) in 2004, options trading activity had reached 3 million contracts a day. Volume growth had been relatively flat for a few years in the wake of the dotcom bust, but the economy was improving. I had no idea what was in store; to get a sense of what capacity to plan for, I reached out to the CIOs who worked with our business partners — the various options and futures exchanges — to learn how much business they expected to send our way.

We were all grossly off the mark! We’re currently averaging slightly fewer than 11 million contracts a day. And on Aug. 16, we cleared nearly 24 million contracts in one day, which is our current high volume day record. OCC has a rule of thumb that says we will maintain enough processing capacity to handle twice the volume of our most recent high-water mark, which typically is two to three times our daily average.

And so we diligently prove out our capacity objective with an annual test. But even though OCC’s capacity management is critical to the efficient operation of the industry, this is not enough to ensure that the demand from the ultimate consumers — those who buy and sell the contracts — can be successfully handled by everyone involved with processing each transaction. Each link in the value chain needs to be strong, and our relationships across corporate boundaries make them so.

The OCC is the financial guarantor of each options transaction, which we process on behalf of the six different options exchanges and three futures exchanges that comprise the U.S. security derivatives industry. These trades originate from consumers (retail customers and professional traders) and come to OCC through approximately 130 broker/dealers, our clearing members.

With all these players exchanging data, and with a 40 percent compound annual growth rate in trading volume since 2004, operational performance can get out of sorts quickly if we’re not reaching out to our clearing members and exchanges regularly. OCC can’t finalize trade processing until we have all the data from the exchanges and clearing members. Likewise, they cannot finalize their processing until OCC is finished with its part of the transaction. So it’s important to be sure we all have the capacity to handle the increasing volumes and also the resiliency to manage operational problems or disasters if or when they happen.

Therefore, although most CIOs have an overview of everything within the four walls of their organization, at OCC we think beyond them, to the industry as a whole.

Seize opportunities to make connections

As companies in other industries become more dependent on cross-company operations, CIOs will need to increase their collaboration and leadership role in their industries.

Besides our routine interactions, we also come together via industry roundtable meetings. OCC chairs four operational roundtables with the exchanges and clearing members each year, as well as three technology roundtables with the IT staff from those same companies. So I have at least seven opportunities each year to sit with our suppliers and customers to talk about operational and technology issues, new products, efficiency opportunities and more. These meetings help keep everyone abreast of industrywide issues and initiatives. They are also very valuable in helping us establish and build relationships among our industry constituents.

I chair the technology roundtables. The meeting coordinator and I come up with an agenda and circulate it among the participants to tailor it to their interests. Sometimes we’ll seed the conversations by asking participants about some hot topic, such as Vista adoption or what they think about SOA. We have a healthy exchange of ideas, and we share information and experiences about common points of interest.

These meetings have been great for championing industrywide issues. One example is the industry’s options symbols. Currently, every option has a unique 5-byte identification code. This is the most fundamental data element in our industry — used everywhere and in every system. But it’s difficult to interpret and error-prone and simply not flexible enough to handle the demands of the industry in the future. OCC is helping to coordinate an initiative to define a new, more robust and easy-to-understand code that is due to go live in 2009.

Relationships are essential

Strategic collaboration and influence within the industry would not be successful without the relationships that many of us in OCC have with a lot of the key people in our industry. When you have good relationships, you can start asking tough questions like, What happens if our current volume grows 10 times over the next five years — what does that mean for us operationally? Or systems-wise? Then we can leverage our relationships and work collectively to resolve potential problems over time — and the industry as a whole can enjoy and prosper from growth rather than toil to survive it.

A fundamental step in building relationships is to get out of the office and meet with people. Every company has suppliers and customers. When I meet with people from the exchanges and with the clearing members, I’ll ask what they are doing with new products, how they are handling volume growth, and, most important, if there are any opportunities for doing business better, cheaper or faster.

When I leave my office for these meetings, I don’t wear an IT hat. It is important to wear a business hat outside your office so that you prompt discussions of business issues rather than merely technology issues. That way you can understand the big issues in your business and theirs, and be able to talk about what help you can provide to them to help meet their needs.

Many of these forays with customers yield new knowledge and insights. What we learn may not be directly reflected in a project, but it helps us gain insight into the business or the needs of the customers. We discuss what we heard and determine if there is something OCC can do to add value to the industry. And we strengthen our relationships with our constituents.

Your company may not be the operational linchpin for your entire industry, but I suspect that there are many different enterprises and stakeholders both upstream and downstream who are depending on your company and its systems. Ask yourself, Do I have an opportunity to be an industry leader as well as an enterprise leader? Put on your business hat, get out of your office and start collaborating.

John Von Stein is executive vice president and CIO of The Options Clearing Corp. in Chicago. He is a member of the CIO Executive Council.

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