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What’s Your Definition of ‘Digital’ in Banking?

“Digital” is the new buzz word in the banking sector, with banks all around the globe hopping onto the digital bandwagon. Just like how the introduction of mobile technology massively disrupted innovation in the banking sector, digital is now doing the same. Banks of all sizes are making sizeable investments in digital initiatives in order to maintain a competitive edge. So, what does “digital” actually mean?

A recent post by Jin Zwicky, VP of Experience Design at OCBC Bank, on the Next Bank Facebook forum asked, “What’s your definition of ‘digital’ in banking?” It has attracted more than 100 comments from the world’s top banking innovators, sharing their thoughts on the issue. I have tried to summarize and synthesize the thoughts of the dozens of participants in the discussion. They definitely provide a glimpse into the future of banking.

According to Steve Monaghan, Regional Head of Innovation at AIA, what digital essentially does is that it uses technology to design experiences, both seen and unseen. As Chief Innovation Officer at DBS Bank, I agreed posting, “Digital is all about making what can be seen unseen – making services so smooth and seamless that it becomes invisible to the customer.” I added, “Despite all the automation and improvements that digital banking has the potential to achieve, customers and their needs still form the very core of the banking sector.”

Subscribe TodayIn fact, many of the comments made by the dozens of participants in the discussion revolved around simplicity of design, the removal of friction and the ability to improve the customer experience. Yann Ranchere, Director at Anthemis and Finance 2.0 blogger, put his perspective as succinctly as anyone by saying, “It’s making banking more human.” Brett King, CEO of Moven, author, speaker and radio host also provided a quick insight when he added, “Banks don’t need a head of digital, that’s the CEO. Therefore, digital in banking should just be best practice banking.”

As aptly put across by Duena Blomstrom, VP of International Sales at Meniga, “As much as digital banking can automate services, the debate on whether consumers still prefer face-time and how much customer advice can really be automated remains.” That said, Duena has gained quite a following for her conceptualizing of ’emotional banking’ at Next Bank Sydney last year.

Brad Jones, Head of Asia Transformation at National Australia Bank, provided further elaboration on this by adding, “Firstly I think that ‘digital’ is buzz, in the same way ‘mobile’ has been put in front of everything from payments to commerce to money. In emerging markets, ‘digital finance’ is the new buzz word, but nothing much has changed from the last buzz word ‘mobile money’. At the end of the day it is all about ‘money’, and money is emotive. That said, planning for digital initiatives requires more than just the automation of services, but to also take into account the emotional aspect of banking – how do customers feel about money and what do they do with it? Emotional needs must be at the centre of the entire customer experience.”

Read More: Financial Institutions Unprepared For Digital Future)

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Scott Bales, author of the book Mobile Ready and authority on digital transformation and mobility, pointed out several interesting challenges facing digital initiatives. “The real difficulty lies not in finding out what digital means, but in learning the value that digital provides to various segments of society – businesses, consumers, employees, citizens and society. Many of these segments have different behavioral defaults and the key to success is finding the value behind the digital implementations.”

A more idealistic opinion on digital in banking was articulated by Bradley Leimer, who leads the Digital Channel Strategy for Northern California-based Mechanics Bank. According to Bradley, “If we tie our efforts in this shift to digital to a way that adds inclusivity and opportunity, we can leverage technology to make a societal impact as big as access to broader education and knowledge.” He added, “Digital provides the unprecedented opportunity to pull up segments of society to do more than spend meager dollars from one misguided direction to another, to spend on things that have the impact the lift a generation.”

Christel Quek, Regional Contact Lead for Twitter in Singapore was actually the first to respond to the question about digital in banking by posting, “Its really about behavior and not technology or channels. That influences strategy, content, and drives advocacy. Its not about being mobile first or digital first, but being people first.” Harriet Wakelam, Principal Customer Experience Strategist at Capco, was an early participant in the dialogue as well “Digital is an enabler that allows the delivery of financial services to be augmented.. Whether these be storytelling or transaction, literacy or investment … It is simply a means to support and enrich service.

Jim Marous at The Financial Brand said, “Digital banking, done right, makes the experience more personalized and proactive by allowing the right discussion to be had with the customer in real time on the right channel. Executed with the power of big data and geodemographic insight, it should be embedded into the consumer’s life to make their money management and the customer’s life easier. The consumer should not think about ‘digital banking’. Instead banking should be in the background of everything digital, enhancing the experience. Digital banking should be seamless, integrated, powerful but invisible.”

Read More: 7 Ways to Navigate Digital Disruption in Banking)

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Finally, Matt Dooley, Managing Director at Connected Thinking summarized by posting, “The nirvana will be to creating ‘magical moments’ with various ecosystem members/3rd parties that leverage data points to create real insights that can be immediately capitalized for value by individuals, corporates and retailers for the benefit of the individual. Future (digital) banking is about creating a ‘jet fighter helmet’ view for me that improves my everyday living and working environments.”

Perhaps digital will bring us back from all the complexities of the banking world to the fundamental and original purpose of banking – to serve our customers and society – and perhaps that is the real meaning of digital in banking. For now, only one thing seems to be certain. The digital disruption has already begun, and all of our experiences would be forever impacted by digital. It is no wonder that banks and big consultancies are all over it – It’s their only ticket for future relevance and survival.

Additional reading on this subject is available in the 2014 State of Digital Transformation by Brian Solis and the Altimeter Group.

neal_crossNeal Cross is the chief innovation officer at DBS Bank in Singapore. A highly sought after speaker and accomplished industry thought leader specializing in innovation for banking, insurance and capital markets, Cross is recognized for his management of new innovative banking solutions from ideation through to commercialization. Recent coverage of Cross’ interesting career path by AsiaOne Business can be found here. Recent presentations by Cross can be seen here, here, and here. You can also follow Neal Cross on Twitter.

All content © 2017 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.

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  1. I agree with Neal Cross excellent write-up. Looking at emerging markets, we have come full circle to a certain extent. We use to talk about branchless banking and then all the buzz was about mobile money and mobile banking. The narrow focus on “mobile” made many soon realize that there were other innovations out there that extended the outreach to financial services that were not directly connected to a mobile phone or mobile tablet. People again got interested in e-money especially in places like Russia were a mobile device is not directly involved. Agent banking has been around for over a decade in Latin America but there was renewed interest in having banking agents that provided access to broader services than those offered by mobile money agents and were connected “digitally” to a bank at the back end especially in Africa and Asia. There is also the significant interest in using big data to analyze and provide rapid access to credit with products like M-Shwari in Kenya and AliFinance in China. So the concept of “digital financial” services gets us back to a broader picture about all the uses of technology that make access to finance digital. In the financial inclusion framework, we now focus on digital financial inclusion as the best way to augment brick-and-mortar financial services and truly provide better services to existing customers as well as to reach the 2.5 billion without access to formal financial services.

  2. Jim Marous Jim Marous says:

    Thanks John for your thoughtful and global perspective. As you make clear, the importance and impact of digital in banking differs significantly as we look at other areas of the world.

  3. Great article from a very insightful group of people. Whilst I don’t disagree with any of the insight, and believe that customers want their bank to Know them, Empower them, and differentiate their experience.

    In order to deliver this effectively, banks also need to think about how their staff are approaching this. As we know this is a long way from traditional business practices, and I think there is strong evidence to suggest that the journey to digital expertise is as much about how you bring your employees through that as it is your customers.

    Whilst you may have exceptional digital offerings to your customers, the experience will be at best patchy, if you don’t have employees that are engaged, commited and capable of delivering the digital experience.

  4. Neal cross says:

    Thanks for your comments John. Financial inclusion services have had to operate on very low budget and technology and hence have had to innovate inside strict boundaries which has meant they have had to focus on the experience and the journey. We are starting to see these systems now move into the mass market and be very successful like Wing in Cambodia. It is certainly something banks should be watching for the future.

  5. Johan Segergren says:

    From my perspective, digital has two meanings for the banking industry. The first one is the digital marketing perspective. It’s the electronic equivalent of their strategically placed brick and mortar stores. Banks need not only to develop apps and interactive websites, but they need to find the strategic partners and locations in a digital space. For example enable api’s to their credit calculations for 3rd party websites, or how GE Capital’s JV with Australian retailer Coles to offer personal finance on top of shopping loyalty cards.
    The second area of digital is their operations. Most banks today are analog in the sense that their systems are siloed. Shifting to digital here means the ability to leverage insights from multiple systems to be able to better tailor offers, manage risk and evaluate success or failure of new initiatives.
    What’s funny with this is that the banking industry practically invented corporate IT, but they’ve been falling behind in the last 10 years due to overly strict regulations. Banks need to figure out their new role and what the essence of banking will be now that transactional banking can be done more easily by anyone from food retailers to social media companies.

  6. Lisa Kuhn Phillips says:

    Damien speaks the truth of the traditional employee/cultural reality. The talent skills gap and T&D necessary for digital transformation starts internally. Mindsets must be challenged and course corrected. Awareness, education and new habits formed. Time to ‘let go’ and embrace new way of thinking and operating. Then let’s hold ourselves (accountable and responsible) to make it happen with strategic metrics and KPI’s.
    No silos. One team. Transformed.

  7. What is digital in banking? Simple – interaction with customers via digital channels – apps, browsers, self-service terminals, social networks, email. How you deliver this is a different question!

  8. Jim Marous Jim Marous says:

    In the end, it is all about the experience.

  9. Jim Marous Jim Marous says:

    Well said Lisa.

  10. Jim Marous Jim Marous says:

    You are completely right about the fact that banks are falling behind in a category they used to excel at. Catching up is tough when the customer is moving at the speed of light.

  11. Jim Marous Jim Marous says:

    Great thoughts Damien.

  12. Arrrrrrrr – digital banking is about becoming more human? I think that misses the point. It’s about banks becoming part of the digital economy – both in the way they serve their clients and how they conduct their own business. Let me provide 3 important examples:

    1) The Internet of Things (IoT) is changing many industries to their core. Billions of sensors will be placed on everything imaginable in order to track usage, consumption, location, and many other aspects of a product’s life. Banks can incorporate this innovation into their business. The use of sensors on products being shipped from the factory in China to their destination warehouse in the US can and will change the nature of trade finance. Knowing where the product is and it’s condition will directly affect the financing of inventory in transit. Those who do not incorporate IoT into their thinking will miss the boat – just like the insurance companies that are playing catch-up with in-car sensors to determine premiums based on safe driving.
    2) It’s been a long time coming – but electronic invoice presentment is as much a part of Digital Banking as anything else. A robust service that digitally connects buyers and sellers is fundamental. The savings in cash flow operations as well as greater visibility in working capital are significant benefits for companies.
    3) A Service Enabled Enterprise is one that uses a hybrid approach to cloud – combining public and private cloud services along with its own data center. Taking this approach banks can finally consolidate their siloed data across their many divisions – and have a single view of the total customer relationship. This is without the prohibitively expensive system replacement strategy. Using a CRM platform such as Force from, a bank can consolidate databases and provide actionable results for marketing through all customer facing channels.

    Three examples – and there are many more. Banks need to understand how their client’s businesses are migrating to the Digital Economy and be at the center of it. By doing so there isn’t a disruptive start-up out there that can match the breadth of products and level of intelligent customer service that the established banks can provide.

  13. Jim Marous Jim Marous says:

    Thanks George. You are spot on.

  14. To be effective in getting the word out, you will have to distribute your campaign across multiple channels – not just digital (a crowded space right now). However, this is where the challenge comes in. Establishing a comprehensive presence and brand voice across multiple channels is challenging, even for a large marketing team with access to many resources.

    Additionally, customers of different demographics and located in different regions of the country will require varying levels of personalization to appeal specifically to them. With automated marketing software, it’s fast and easy to create personalized and localized marketing campaigns for distribution across both digital and traditional marketing channels, making it possible to generate buzz, without breaking the bank.

  15. Great comment Chris on the need to use a variety of channels personalized to each person (as opposed to a blanket strategy or a segment focus). And you are right that even the style of communication needs to be different for households in different areas of the country or using different channels to research and buy products. Automation is the only way to address these exponentially increasing options.

  16. It is great to see Jim, Neal & other experts views on ‘digital’ aspect of Banking. Consumers only care about experience and digital banking aims to provide that in a very personalised, seamless and anywhere/anytime mode. Great writeup and insightful comments.

  17. Mohammed Alam says:

    To me, digital means use of software for better performance in activities – whether it is banking, education, production, broadcsating, health care or whatever.

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