by Ishan Bhattacharya

How Digitization is Redefining Our Business: Ashok Vaswani, Barclays

Jul 05, 2015
BudgetingBusinessEnergy Industry

Ashok Vaswani, CEO, personal and corporate banking, Barclays, talks about digital evangelism and how digitization is re-shaping the business of the 300-year old bank.

What is the best lesson that you can learn from a waterfall? That it keeps flowing. Just like Barclays. Imagine a bank that is 325 years old. A bank that has not only witnessed but also survived two World Wars, two major global depressions and is still standing tall. That’s Barclays for you. Today, this bank so steeped in legacy, is embracing digitization and giving competition a tough fight. Ashok Vaswani, CEO, Personal and Corporate Banking, Barclays, talks about digital evangelism and how it is shaping Barclays.

What is your digital strategy and where do you currently stand in your digital journey?

We are a 325-year old bank, even older than the Bank of England and UK. We have experienced two World Wars and two major depressions but we are still running strong and one of the reasons behind this is embracing technology in different forms, as and when it comes.

So, today everything that we do in Barclays is digital. The concept of separation from digital and non-digital does not exist for us. The reason behind this is that, whether you like it or not, the digital revolution is coming. This is going to be bigger than the Industrial Revolution or the Agricultural Revolution and every time there has been a revolution of such a scale a lot of people have been affected. Some people got ahead and some were left behind. This time, Barclays is committed not to leave anyone behind and when I say this, I do not mean that our digitization journey is limited to banking, it stretches further. How do we take all sections of the society and help them get on the right track as far as digitization is concerned. That’s what we are pursuing.

What kind of transformation do you think it will require in the technology, people and process layers to realize the full benefits of digitization?

I am not too much concerned about the technology. Honestly, technology is the easier part. It is getting the people, the culture and the mindset to shift within an organization and outside. You and I might have the same app on our smartphones, but how you will use the app could be very different from the way I use the app. Today’s generation will find more than one way of using an app, whereas the older generation might not. The question is how we bring both on the same platform. Technology also has its cons. For instance, on social media there is, practically speaking, nothing called a ‘delete button’, the etiquette for social media has not been sentenced yet. So, how do we make people understand what content is appropriate. Frankly speaking, there is a certain degree of coyness, fear and apprehension among people, both young and old that restrains them from using technology to their benefit. This needs to disappear in order to enable businesses, people and institutions realize the full benefits of digitization.

Shouldn’t digitization require a focus on transforming business processes rather than focusing on operational chores?

Absolutely! Like I said, the technology is not that important. The important part is, how technology affects the way people do things, how does it make the lives of people easier. I feel, a technology that impacts the lives of people is extremely powerful.

For instance, we have an app that helps customers who are unable to hear interact comfortably with our employees. Once such a customer comes to our branch, we open the app which connects to a person who, with the help of sign language, plays the role of an ombudsman between the two parties to enable seamless communication. 

I feel, if you can address very small issues with sophisticated technologies the impact you can generate for your business is immense. For instance, I think opting for a loan can be a traumatizing experience for a customer and as a bank it is our responsibility to imbibe in him or her the confidence to do the same by showing them how much you actually care. Instead of having a desktop or a laptop in front of you which appears as a barrier between you and your customer by making the entire process less transparent, one can easily use a tab, which can be kept at the center of the table, to carry out the process with absolute transparency. This instills faith in customers.

Enterprise IT is always a work-in-progress, how then do enterprises build a phased path of migration to digital?

So, essentially I feel there are two ways of doing this. One way of doing it is, how well we can identify our product platforms and do these platforms have the required industrial strength and are they sufficiently scalable. Then, having known this, do not touch the industrial platforms, instead build a wrapper around it and use contemporary technologies efficiently to do whatever that has to be done. Alternatively, it is also important to find out that if there is a way to walk down the path of using completely contemporary technologies and then migrate people from legacy platforms to the contemporary ones. Here, again, it is a big bet on both sides. How well you take the bet, by understanding platforms, will define which way you want to lean.

You have a keen interest in India’s microfinance industry. How do you see microfinance as a vertical that’s embracing technology?

I am a firm believer in the fact that technology will disrupt every single industry vertical and obviously why would microfinance or a company like Ujjivan, be any different. The whole way of generating a loan, servicing the loan, the way of educating customers on what it means to use products, be it savings, loans or insurance can be delivered in a very cost efficient and nice way by leveraging technology, essentially speaking the mobile. Through technology, I feel there is a tremendous opportunity to leapfrog to a space where you can educate customers on the benefits of financial services.

From the perspective of a leader in the banking industry, what according to you still remains a major bottleneck when it comes to implementation of technology?

Being such an old bank, legacy architecture has to be the answer. It is difficult to re-wire and put legacy systems behind and get into the new world. Another thing is changing mindsets and bringing everyone onto the same agenda that technology offers is also a humongous task.  Digitization is too important a thing to be left only to the IT department. If we can digitize the way two colleagues interact with each other, then definitely they will become more excited about technology. An educated and demanding user will always benefit both the IT department and business.