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Opinions of Monday, 16 September 2019

Columnist: Ebo Richardson

Turning buzzwords into reality

Ebo Richardson, Barclays Bank Ghana Ebo Richardson, Barclays Bank Ghana

Those working in the financial industry in Ghana may hear the words ‘digital’ and ‘innovation’ more than five times a day. These terms have become buzzwords, and are routinely dropped into PowerPoint presentations, meetings, and general business parlance.

There is a reason for this: every bank is now trying to figure out how to turn buzzwords into reality in their business. Yet, many of these efforts have delivered mixed success.

Digital innovation is, after all, one of the ways in which all banks seek growth. It’s about being fit for the future and being agile enough to respond to the needs of our customers. It’s also fundamentally about making processes faster and more reliable.

Some say that the banking industry’s quest to become more digital and innovative is a matter of necessity: to catch up with non-traditional players in the fintech space, embracing innovation and a digital focus is imperative. This is not far off – these fintech companies are, increasingly, becoming serious competitors in what was a traditional banking business space.

In Africa, this trend has been fuelled by the accelerating rate of mobile telephony penetration. According to GSM Association figures for 2018, sub-Saharan Africa currently has 456 million unique mobile subscribers, with a 44% penetration rate. By 2020, this is expected to reach over half a billion unique subscribers, making Africa the fastest growing mobile market.

Yet, many financial institutions’ approach to digital innovation is about transferring an existing process or service on to a self-service channel of sorts, without redesigning the offering or service. This approach often does not deal with, or improve, the underlying weaknesses in systems and results in channels that customers are not willing to use. Often, improving the user experience, or the simplicity and reliability of the channel is a simple solution that makes a world of difference.

As part of Absa Group, we firmly believe that a focus on digital offerings will play a key role in achieving our purpose of helping bring the possibilities of our customers to life.

However, being ‘digitally-led’ does not necessarily refer to building an entirely digital bank. It is about digitising our enterprise, end-to-end, to improve our customers’ experiences. We aim to get closer to the customer, and become more agile in all areas, including decision-making. We are focused on using technological developments of the 21st Century to deliver on our growth ambitions.

Over the last couple of years, we have embarked on several industry-leading initiatives intended to serve the constantly evolving interests and needs of our customers. The enhancement of our Retail Mobile Banking App with features such as Fingerprint and Face ID authentication, the introduction of an SME-focused Online Banking platform, Cardless Deposits functionality on our ATMs, and a Collections platform that allows for funds mobilization by our key partners in a simple but intuitive way. These are a few of the initiatives that we have brought to bear to signal our intent on becoming a premier digitally-led organization, and reinforce our commitment of being customer-centric in all we do.

Yet, we recognise there are challenges to overcome, one being legacy systems. This is a challenge that all banks will grapple with. These systems tend to have little flexibility and room for innovation, and limited interoperability with other ecosystems.

As we transition from Barclays to Absa, we are continuously investing in new technology, which includes enhancing and replacing the old with fit-for-future technology. We recognise that our customers’ needs are changing, and we are investing in digital platforms to offer more convenience and much-improved customer experience.

As we seek to be a Banking Group that Africa can be proud of, we are exploring ways to build world-leading capabilities – bringing the best thinking, skills, design, and digital assets to create a differentiated business.

Many institutions fail to innovate successfully simply because of their lack of speed and agility. Digital innovation is about quick and short cycles that are aligned to customer needs, as well as continually improving customer experience. By the time slow institutions bring something to market or fruition, the market has already moved on, rendering obsolete their proud, but not-up-to-date creations.

We recognize these challenges and are actively working towards mitigating them.

That is why we are building a Bank that is not only fit for the future but also engineered for customer of the future. A Bank that is digitally-led, entrepreneurial, and driven by the needs of the customer.

Ebo Richardson is the Change & Enablement Lead - responsible for Transformation & Technology (Barclays Bank Ghana)