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What COVID-19 has taught banks

And specifically about moving to the Cloud?

This article was published in Finextra - June 2020

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, my nine-year-old daughter’s adoption of digital technology accelerated overnight. She suddenly had to master email, an online calendar and Google Classroom for homeschooling. She did this on an inherited iMac, older than she is. I was largely tasked with supporting this transition, whilst juggling my own day-to-day workload, which wasn’t easy.

In a sense, I see this situation as a microcosm of many enterprises' digital struggles in the past few months. Executives had to migrate operations and ways of working online at breakneck speed, often constrained by legacy incumbent technology. As McKinsey quoted: “Businesses that once mapped digital strategy in one- to three-year phases must now scale their initiatives in a matter of days or weeks.”

As we return to a new normal, we stand on the brink of a potential global economic downturn. The IMF has warned it could be the worst recession since the 1930s. So, what lessons have we learned and how can we apply these in our on-going strategic planning?

For me, three key learnings stand out. Firstly, digital and data really is king. Second, the need for speed has, well, sped up. And thirdly, in a kind of paradox, the budgets organizations have to deliver on points one and two above will be under increasing pressure. Let’s take each in turn.

1. Digital and data is king

Digital, and specifically using data to automate and offer the best real-time online customer experiences, is table-stakes. Businesses that were already set-up to work online have had a massive advantage. As I write this, the tech sector now makes up 27% of the S&P 500, the highest since the dot-com bubble. As this LinkedIn article states, Big Tech has had a good COVID crisis. Financial stocks, on the other hand, are now just 10% of the S&P 500. Arguably, the threat from Big Tech has come a step closer. The gap between digital leaders and laggards is certainly widening.

2. The need for speed has accelerated

Many of the changes we’re seeing during the pandemic are changes that were mostly already underway; consumers and businesses’ banking habits were shifting online, bank branches were being mothballed and the use of cash was declining. The global pandemic has simply accelerated the timeframes. I often heard, pre-crisis, that agility, speed and adaptability are the most important criteria for success. This is certainly true in the start-up world - and it now firmly applies across the board.

3. The drive for cost-efficiency

Naturally, as budgets tighten up, the pressure on quick-win ROIs and driving cost efficiency is increasing. As this Wall Street Journal article states: Companies are hitting pause on the longer-term transformation projects and spending more on Cloud.

So, how can we apply these three key lessons? How should FS institutions accelerate their digital and data infrastructure investments so they can deliver online customer experiences and backend operational efficiency in a super, agile, fast and cost-effective way?

Lesson’s can be taken from the tech companies - both Big Tech and the smaller Silicon Valley start-ups. We can turn our attention to event streaming platforms.

The ability to combine and analyse data from every part of a business is a major benefit of event streaming, resulting in these platforms becoming a foundational part of the modern software stack. Most Silicon Valley companies are architected around event streaming platforms - and we’re seeing massive adoption within FS, as this blog post from my colleague, Ben Stopford, outlines; Event Streaming is becoming the New Big Thing for Finance. As banks position themselves to build more sophisticated digital experiences that strengthen customer loyalty and increase operational efficiency, the strategic significance of event streaming will increase.

That said, implementing event streaming, like most distributed systems, can involve lots of complexity. The process of connecting to data sources across multiple business units and a variety of systems can be time-consuming and difficult. The initial build, updates and maintenance of a platform can take months or even years. These challenges aren’t the core problem most banks are aiming to solve and not where they want their best people-focused. So, in order to realise the speed, adaptability and flexibility requirements, all whilst remaining cost-effective, the Cloud should be considered. This can reduce the data infrastructure build and integration efforts to a matter of weeks.

As the saying goes, “never let a crisis go to waste.” This risks sounding flippant, which is not my intention. Instead, I want to focus on positives we can draw from the last few months.

Three weeks into the pandemic and the onset of homeschooling, frustrated by the speed of the old iMac, I decided to invest in a new iMac for my daughter. One outcome - at an individual level - from this humanitarian crisis is the acceleration of her digital adoption.

Crises can compel organisations to rethink how they work, and this can often become the source of lasting change and growth. Escalating the strategic significance of your event streaming platform - moving it to the Cloud - can help drive digital forward, increase speed and do so in a much more cost-effective way. The event streaming platform can truly become the central nervous system and the most strategic data platform across the enterprise.

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