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Straight Talk IT

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"Digitize or die." Interestingly, this is not the headline from a digital evangelist giving the keynote, but the proclamation of Shayne Nelson, group CEO of Emirates NBD, one of the top banks in the UAE, which recently embarked on a three-year, $250m transformation to prepare itself for the digital world. Such thinking has quite rapidly become pervasive across the financial services sector, with a step change in board-level thinking quite noticeable over the last year.

Key here has been the realization that the impact of the digitally connected world and new technologies such as Blockchain and artificial intelligence will not only change how institutions do business but also fundamentally change the industry itself. This has shifted the debate from thinking about the digital customer experience, how to drive innovation, and how to partner with fintechs, to a broader, more strategic consideration as to how institutions can prepare themselves to be and act "digital."

As one of the leading banks in making the shift to digital, Emirates NBD makes a good case study for examining the transformation required. A key learning here is its focus on developing a digital culture (hence the CEO-level proclamation) and the realization that digital adoption requires clarity of purpose, active engagement, and a mind-set of change among employees. It has a strong focus on promoting leadership and advocacy for digital, looking to both train existing employees and bring in talent to be more "digital," with change management a core part of its transformation program.

The bank has also been willing to adopt the new business model mind-set and cannibalize existing business to gain a foothold with new digital services. It recently launched its DirectRemit service, which is a free, rapid remittance service servicing the main remittance corridors in the region. This was a radical move given the revenue importance of remittances (the UAE is a major remittance market); however, its aim was to establish itself as a provider here before a fintech competitor effectively did the same.

Emirates NBD also created a black ops–style challenger team within the bank to contest against itself how the bank is doing business. It used this to create a new standalone bank within itself, launching Liv. earlier this year, a mobile-only digital bank focused on the millennial market (the UAE has a significant population in the 20–35 age bracket). This was built from the ground up, focused on lifestyle banking with embedded financial management, mobile person-to-person payments, and lifestyle-based rewards. Again, the bank is willing to effectively cannibalize customers within itself, but it is also using this to challenge processes and practices across the rest of the bank.

This is driving transformation of the back end. The bank has already rolled out robotic process automation across 12 main processes, and plans to expand this to 50 within the next 12 months. Additionally, it is looking to simplify its ecosystem of more than 200 applications to allow faster changes and the ability to deal with the demands of the digital world.

Such transformation will not be cheap for banks (e.g., $250m for a $125bn asset bank that was probably at a better starting place than many); however, the industry has reached the point where this is a requirement rather than a choice.

Straight Talk is a weekly briefing from the desk of the Chief Research Officer. To receive this newsletter by email, please contact us.

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