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Bringing financial services into the fast lane

By Tom Holliday, Financial Services Consultant at KCOM

Perhaps no other sector has been more visibly disrupted by technology than financial services. Banks, brokers and insurance companies were caught off-guard by data-driven start-ups and app-enabled payments providers. To survive, they have been racing to catch up ever since. However, laden with a backlog of legacy technology, the digital transformation of the financial services industry is stuck in second gear.

The sector’s slowness in adopting new technologies has seriously damaged financial firms’ ability to meet their customers’ needs, as a recent Forrester study shows. Forrester found that 84% of UK financial service organisations are concerned about their ability to identify customers correctly, while a third believe they are ‘seriously lagging behind competitors’ when it comes to fraud checks. Meanwhile, the researchers found that UK firms have less interest in adopting new approaches to authenticate customer identity, lagging behind China, Singapore and the US.

Reach for the cloud

It’s not all bad news, though. In autumn 2018 KCOM conducted in-depth research among senior decision makers at businesses in a number of sectors, including financial services, to gauge their progress towards cloud migration. We found that 80% of respondents from financial services businesses say they plan to invest in cloud migration in next 12 months to drive innovation – the highest of any sector studied.

The cloud is central to any significant business transformation project and enables financial services companies to throw off the shackles of legacy technology. But cloud migration is always a serious undertaking, and particularly so for financial services businesses.

A poorly-planned and executed cloud migration may simply achieve the continuation of a flawed system. This year we saw the huge risks of a failed migration, with a traditional bank suffering severe reputational damage. When a big technology project goes wrong in a large financial services business, it tends to make the front page. Just look at the reams of negative publicity that TSB garnered when the bank ran into problems updating its IT infrastructure. Do bank customers face a year of more of uncertainty and disruption, while challengers steam ahead with their superior tech agility and ability?

Crossing the rubicon

No industry takes its customers’ security more seriously than financial services, and our research suggests that respondents are fully aware of the potential risks of cloud migration. When choosing a technology partner, they were most likely to use selection criteria that are heavily weighted towards partners that they can trust, as measured through their delivery on previous projects.

Almost two in five respondents (38%) from financial services businesses use this criterion – more than those who choose a partner based on their ability to deliver against a defined technology road map (34%), and those that use agile methodologies, frameworks and contracts that enable the delivery team to work through the unknowns (28%).

This is understandable. Trust is especially vital in the financial services industry, as we’ve seen. Yet is such caution always the best way to develop systems and infrastructure that will support a financial services business’ success in the years to come? If financial services providers truly trust their technology partners, shouldn’t they be more open to accepting their advice on innovation and cloud migration projects, rather than expecting them merely to follow the strict instructions in the proposal?

Our research suggests that this remains a barrier that the financial sector is still unwilling to cross. We found that only 10% of respondents expect their partners to introduce ideas and help drive innovation, compared to 36% who identify the required technology first and then issue an RFP.

Digital collaboration

While financial services was a little ahead of other industries in being open to ideas from their technology partners, this 10% figure is hardly evidence of a “pioneer spirit”. Given the pressure from challenger banks, we would expect the industry to be more open to listening to technology experts.

We fully accept why financial services firms would approach digital transformation projects, including cloud migration, with caution – but can they afford to spurn the advice of their technology partners? For example, a trusted partner might advise that financial services businesses would do better to focus on cloud-native innovation and a more measured, gradual migration to cloud, rather than doing it in a “big bang”.

We don’t believe that the go-it-alone approach works for financial services businesses. Earlier this year, for example, we found that only 6 per cent of UK financial businesses know when all their infrastructure components will reach their end-of-life-date.

Digital transformation should be a collaborative work. The required skills are in short supply, so firms should be willing to look further afield for the expertise they need, bringing in expert partners to assist with the change. The race to the cloud was won years ago by a generation of agile digital upstarts, but more established players have much to gain from finishing second. Collaboration with expert consultants is the key to success in the new digital world.

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