Digital transformation in the financial services industry

The financial sector is embracing digital transformation. Can the technologies that drive it help them meet new challenges?

Like most industries, the financial services sector is going through an intense period of digital transformation. A recent Gartner survey found that one-third of financial services CIOs identified going digital as their top business priority for 2019 – up by more than 8% from the response the year before. Meanwhile, a report last year from the World Economic Forum suggests that AI, along with Blockchain, Cloud and – in the future – Quantum Computing, could transform what it calls ‘the physics of financial services’ – ‘weakening the bonds that have historically held together financial services and creating new centres of gravity where new and old capabilities are being combined in unexpected ways.’

Together, the combination of big data, AI, cloud and mobile is empowering firms to move away from their old processes and business models and embrace new opportunities. The most visible impact is on the customer experience, as cloud-based services, voice interactions, bots and mobile apps give us new ways to interact with financial products and services. However, as much is going on behind the scenes. Some banks are digitising their internal processes, moving away from paper-based filing and legacy applications to modern, cloud-based services that aid compliance and allow them to extract more value from the data.

Meanwhile, robotic process automation is helping firms to automate complex, time-intensive activities, while AI technologies turn data into insight, providing decision-making support for human workers. Natural language processing technologies will impact everything from customer interactions to compliance, helping firms to both extract crucial information from unstructured data and put those findings to good use. And when you have the computing power to combine real-time data streams with analytics and AI, you have the ingredients you need to optimise your processes and make effective decisions faster.

Perhaps most crucially, digital transformation is helping financial services firms reinvent themselves. The sector is slowly moving from an era of competition to one of collaboration, where established institutions can partner with new FinTechs to create personalised, intelligent, cloud-based solutions that can meet customer expectations while simultaneously lowering operating costs. Transformation isn’t about offering the same products and services through new technology, but about making services more personal to each customer and more accessible to a wider market. That’s why banks like ABN AMRO in the Netherlands are maintaining office space where they can work directly with new start-ups to drive innovation.

This more collaborative environment is also being fuelled by the growth of Blockchain, enabling networks where everyone who needs to can have access to the same data, with all changes to that data recorded and locked-in. Everyone can work using the same ‘shared truth.’

Meeting the challenge

Firms understand the necessity of this transformation. In the words of ABN Amro COO Johan van Hall, ‘Banks are in a very transformational mode. We see the new entrants coming and we believe that banks towards the end of the decade will be very different than we are today.’ Flexibility, agility and speed have become key goals.

Of course, financial services organisations face specific challenges. As well as the universal issues around data regulation and GDPR, they’re bound by industry regulations designed to ensure that institutions manage risk responsibly and behave with integrity. Banking, insurance and financial service firms are subject to more controls in terms of auditing, reporting and assessment, not to mention the storage and management of data. It’s a sector where security is crucial – where a data breach can not only have immediate financial consequences but a longer-term impact on reputation and trust. And to make the business of transformation even more complex, it’s an industry associated with siloed data, a reliance on big iron legacy applications and a cultural resistance to change.

Yet there’s good news. Many of the same technologies that are transforming financial services can also help firms in the sector overcome these challenges. In particular, IBM technologies have a proven history of driving transformation forward.

The technology behind future finance

Take IBM’s Watson AI technologies, for example. On the one hand, they’re helping firms deliver mobile apps that can combine data from public sources, financial sector sources and other client interactions to give customers information they can use in their financial decisions. On the other hand, they’re giving in-house sales teams the tools they need to ask for information or guidance using natural language, and get an effective, data-driven response in the same digestible format.

Meanwhile, firms are using AI to prevent fraud and manage risk, using Watson’s ability to ingest vast amounts of data – both at rest and in real-time – and spot patterns or inconsistencies that need to be flagged. Data can be drawn from existing sources or aggregated from multiple-systems in real-time, ensuring risk and compliance professionals can interpret complex issues and ensure they have the right controls in place. Experience has shown Watson identifying 30% to 50% of anti-money-laundering alerts as false positives and reducing the time it took for a banker to perform customer due diligence on a standard business from over 13 minutes down to five minutes 20 seconds. Nor is this the only way Watson can help firms with their Governance, Risk and Compliance duties; because the technology learns and can work with natural language, it can ingest and interpret regulations as they change.

Cloud also has a crucial role to play. IBM Cloud for Financial Services is a cloud-based platform and ecosystem designed to meet the needs of financial institutions. It comes with technologies like Blockchain and predictive analytics built-in, plus the APIs, reference architectures and microservice templates that can help firms build and deploy their own applications faster. Specific APIs for financial risk management, simulated instrument analytics and control of financial data can aid firms in meeting their governance, risk and compliance obligations. Best of all, firms don’t need to invest in their own infrastructure and build everything from scratch; digital transformation can be an ongoing cost rather than a huge upfront investment.

Data management and protection is a big concern for firms, but IBM technologies can help. IBM’s Guardiam technologies make it easier to identify security and compliance risks, then use tokenisation and pseudonymisation of sensitive data to reduce them. Security teams can set policies to ensure that departments get the information they need to do their jobs, but not information that might add unnecessary risks. Multi-cloud data encryption can safeguard that data across single clouds, multiple clouds or even hybrid environments, while IBM’s Immutable Object Storage technology ensures that companies can set and manage data retention according to regulations, all using a cloud-based interface.

By leading on data management, AI, Blockchain and the cloud, IBM is defining the more collaborative, intelligent financial services platform of the future.

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