Innovation from synergy: The transformation of ING Americas' IT department

08 March 2023 5 min. read

A year and a half ago, Michel Houben joined ING Americas as CIO. He saw an opportunity to position the IT department more as an innovation partner. To build support, he organized a hackathon, which was the prelude to a transformation shift that is far from complete but which has already yielded successes. We spoke to Houben about this journey and his collaboration with Synechron.

Ever since he began his career, in 2004, Michel Houben has focused on IT within the financial services industry. So, when he started at ING Americas, in the fall of 2021, he brought a very clear vision of the field to his new role as CIO.

“The experience I have, and what you also see in the market, is that technology is driving the business,” he begins. “With all the new developments that technology gives us, you can do great things.”

fLTR: Sandeep Kumar (Synechron), Michel Houben (ING), Michael Doersam (ING), Adam Lee (Synechron), Jarno Droog (Synechron)

This is where he saw opportunities for ING Americas. “There was an opportunity to better utilize the IT team which was primarily seen as a support function who responded quickly to operational IT questions ranging from a broken laptop to support service requests.”

He therefore set out to make a transition. “I wanted to shift this so that the IT team was outward-looking, working closely with the business to create applications and solutions that would drive positive business outcomes.”

“My vision for our department is one where proactivity and innovation come from finding synergies, and where improvement comes from the use of technology. This means creating an environment where great ideas thrive so that we are making a meaningful impact to our local business as well as to our global ING innovation platform.”

Going that extra mile

Houben – who previously oversaw the IT organization for ING Spain and Portugal – aims to bring even more technology and new innovative market trends to ING Americas, to enhance the customer experience.

In a market where many financial products today are increasingly similar, how we use technology can make a big difference, Houben explains. “Technology can provide a better experience. We can differentiate ourselves by using new innovations to make the customer journey easier, more efficient and more interesting. It’s also about our employees. Use of technology allows us to work smarter.”

Added up, a smart use of technology can thus help increase the competitive edge. Enough reason, then, for Houben to immediately launch a number of change initiatives at the end of 2021.

Innovate in 24 hours

As a seasoned IT transformation leader, however, he knows all too well that the real challenge is not in the technology, but in getting people on board.

The IT department decided to organize a hackathon entitled US Breaking Habits. “The goal was to show that if we bring the technology and customer teams together, we can accomplish a lot in in 24 hours,” he said.

As part of the planning Houben connected with Synechron, a global digital consulting firm focused on the financial sector. The agency has been working with ING Bank since 2005 on consulting, digital and technology for various organizational units in the Netherlands, the UK and Singapore.

Ten ING teams were formed in which business and IT worked together on innovation ideas. Through the day Synechron guided the teams during the innovation journey – from creating a minimum viable product – to innovation coaching with new technologies and supervision of team collaboration.

The collaboration turned out to be “a golden opportunity,” said Houben: “The hackathon was a great success.”

Beginning of a new era

Synechron also sat alongside ING on the final jury, which tested the innovation ideas for feasibility, innovation and customer value. And the ideas they saw certainly did not disappoint.

Houben already knew there was a lot of creativity and innovative power in the team, but the fact that almost all the ideas could be converted almost immediately into workable (minimally viable) products exceeded his expectations. “To deliver such a top performance in 24 hours is fantastic. The teams worked hard and – together with Synechron's innovation specialists – made the hackathon a great success.”

The realization that you can achieve great things when business and IT work together had landed. “And now that everyone has seen what you can achieve in 24 hours, they can also imagine what it means when we start doing this every day. This is the beginning of a new era where we are going to work agile, together with DevOps, to innovate.”

Our eyes opened

He is also very excited about working with Synechron. “Earlier this year, I visited Synechron's Financial Innovation Lab in New York. What I really liked about that is that we got to see there what is possible with new technologies.”

“Seeing various cases and trends in the market was inspiring, and we now see many new opportunities to further improve the customer experience, for example. In addition, Synechron's experience in how to get from the ideation phase to a product, and how to scale it globally, is of course invaluable.”

It offered Houben and his team inspiration for realizing their high ambitions. “We want to be an innovator and stay one step ahead of our competitors. Synechron offers us end-to-end solutions for the long term, where technology and innovation are central, and ING can grow and get better.”

Full agenda

Houben says that enthusiasm about the hackathon immediately led to a surfeit of new initiatives flooding into the IT department.

Looking at the vision of wholesale banking, digitalization is the key to innovation and improvement. To realize these ambitions, Houben is focusing more on delivering added value, innovations and technology.