Financial Services Take The First Steps Towards Desktops In The Cloud

Carol Beer, the charmless bank manager in the BBC’s Little Britain hit sketch show, was infamous for her glum “computer says no” catchphrase. Sadly, in many companies today, the IT department carries the same reputation as Ms Beer – the grumpy inhibitor and restrictor rather than willing facilitator and enabler.

Staff see the technicians as old-fashioned techies, who give staff clunky old desktops that jar with the freedoms of their personal lives, where iPhones, iPads, MacBooks and all the social networks such as Facebook are commonplace. Their mobile “do anything anywhere” environment shudders to a halt when they come to work.

I spoke to one board level client who was stunned when he moved to his new company that he was unable to use his own laptop and iPad. The IT department instead set him up with a desktop that made him feel like he had been transported five years back in time.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We have been working with two FTSE 100 companies which take pride in being technology leaders. Not only will their staff be better served as a result and more content, but they have achieved a more streamlined and forward-thinking image in the eyes of customers, by deploying mobile interfaces in the front line.

The financial manager, for example, who can sit with a client in a lobby cafe and bring up useful information on his iPad, has an advantage over the unfortunate who has to drag the client back to his desk. The client naturally leaves thinking that one company is forward-thinking and living in the new generation, while the other has a foot in the past.

These companies are also giving IT a more active role in premises strategy and office refurbishment, with desks set up to facilitate hotdesking and the use of mobile interfaces. One catalyst has been the changing work practices from the traditional ethos of nine-to-five to a more progressive attitude which allows staff to balance personal commitments and avoid peak hour commuting. Why should staff be chained to one desk in one office, especially when a company can save money by reducing their overall office space?

Edinburgh-based financial services giant Standard Life is one such technology leader that recognised the need to embrace solutions, which would allow its staff to work remotely and so better serve its seven million customers worldwide. The company’s underlying IT infrastructure, made up primarily of local servers and desktop PCs, was not designed to support secure remote access to the applications managers needed, such as financial management and analysis tools.

For Standard Life, a tactical and limited approach to remote access was no longer adequate. To succeed as a global player and ensure secure, flexible remote access for all employees, the company needed to include an access strategy in its business planning.

Standard Life has deployed a Citrix solution which enables more than 800 diverse remote users, spanning a variety of roles, to connect securely via the Internet using Access Gateway in order to access email and line-of-business applications running on Citrix XenApp (formerly Presentation Server). Users can be given access to the company network without risk of sensitive management or customer data falling into the wrong hands. This is increasingly important for security reasons due to sensitive data that is used in the financial services sector.

The virtualisation strategy has been extremely successful, particularly in the spheres of productivity and staff retention. Employees are increasingly required to work on the fly in hotels, touchdown (hot-desk) centres and airports and in our overseas offices. Citrix has enabled the company to be much more mobile, users can now access not only email but also their line-of-business applications anywhere they can get an Internet connection.

Mobile working is not the only benefit. Standard Life has reported that staff are not only happier; they are hugely more productive. As employees can now work more flexibly, many are choosing to finish tasks at home in the evenings, once they have spent time with their families, for example.

One result of the economic uncertainty in recent years has been an increase in acquisitions and mergers, often among high profile financial companies, which can potentially lead to IT headaches. Typically, the acquired company needs to adopt the systems of the acquirer. This potentially costly and complex task can be greatly simplified by using virtual desktops and “private cloud” solutions that can be delivered centrally as a service rather than installing new systems on every PC.

Besides, an IT revolution in financial services companies is largely unavoidable, due to aging Windows XP desktops and the inevitable adoption of Windows 7. Perhaps everyone will be getting their desktop from the cloud in five years time, but in the meantime companies need a solution that blends current requirements and future strategy. Virtualising applications and desktops, optimising storage and wide area networks and providing secure remote access for mobile workers will take organisations a long way over the bridge towards the cloud.

The new generation of workers expects to subscribe rather than be served, to browse rather than be restricted and to touch rather than click. It can all be done and the benefits for staff will be manifold. The first step is to remove the perception of IT as the lazy arm of technology and become the source of innovation and the new way of working. With the right attitude and strategy, sometimes the computer says “yes”!

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Ewen Anderson is Managing Director of Centralis. Prior to founding Centralis, Ewen worked at a senior level in corporate IT and management services within British Gas. He has helped establish Centralis as one of the leading influencers of application and desktop delivery strategy in the UK, winning excellence awards from customers and major software vendors. Ewen holds a BSc Honours Degree in Psychology from Manchester University and a Diploma from the Institute of Management Services, the primary UK body concerned with the promotion, practice and development of methodologies for the improvement of productivity and quality.