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The financial services sector has always recognised the importance of data. From assessing the risk of a loan to measuring the performance of an investment, having the right information is at the heart of the industry. Today, data from market reports, transactions and customers, is available in abundance and the question facing banks and insurers is how best to handle it all. How do we collect, store and manage it without expending enormous resources? How do we ensure that the quality is high and that we are complying with information regulations? And how do we use it most effectively to benefit our organisations, employees and customers?

To answer these questions, Ephesoft and the Financial Times gathered together a group of senior executives from financial services organisations at a FTLive seminar. Under the chairmanship of FT moderator Alan Livsey, Astrid Stange, COO of AXA, James Platt, COO of Aon and Kerem Tomak, Global Chief Analytics Officer of ING joined Ephesoft’s Senior VP Stephen Boals to discuss the challenges that are common across the sector. The panel was joined by a 500-strong audience of financial services professionals, who also contributed some of their own experiences via digital polls. 77 per cent of this audience stated they found it quite difficult to manage, analyse and use data in their own organisation. In this article, we outline some of the strategies discussed that are helping financial services organisations to tackle this problem.

Create a data culture

Our panellists agreed that managing data is no longer about a small group of elite analysts or engineers and that a “data culture”, as described by Astrid Stange, COO of AXA, is essential. The goal for financial services organisations should be to motivate employees and customers to share information, meticulously maintain it and use it purposefully. As James Platt, the COO of Aon, stated, “We can only win the data challenge if the entire organisation follows a common strategy. Inadequate or incorrect information can be found in many places because an individual employee has not realised how important high-quality data is for the success of a company.”

Make it easy

In practice, this means that you have to make it easy for your teams to put data into your IT systems. It’s essential that the information you are receiving is accurate, but by over-complicating your data capture technology so that only a few specialised individuals can use it, you are restricting your capacity. Information from customers, for example, will often arrive in a variety of different formats. A single insurance application may involve Excel files, PDF documents and emails, all of which have to be integrated into the insurance company’s systems in order to be assessed. The way you process these matters. Having teams of people manually reading documents and typing in the details is one solution, but it’s inefficient, slow and prone to error. On the other hand, spending thousands of pounds to programme a computer system to read one particular document that will then need completely re-programming to read a different document is also inefficient.

Choose software you can configure, not re-code

For this reason, as Kerem Tomak, Global Chief Analytics office at ING, explained, a “low code” solution, which can be reconfigured, is a good option. For global organisations, even more variations will exist. “Every location has different local requirements for customer documents –a simple credit application in Germany needs entirely different documents from the same application in Italy.” The documents themselves can also vary. Legal documents, for example, often contain patterns of imagery or watermarking that are unique to a particular jurisdiction. This can make OCR very difficult to apply, so you need to take this into account if you’re considering automation.

Create structure where none exists

When it comes to analysing data to put it to work, structure is essential. Information from any type of the document has to be stored in databases in order to assess risk or plan investments. Astrid Stange’s approach at AXA is to focus on standardisation, and an internationally uniform architecture, but acknowledges that this requires a great deal of work to achieve.

Stephen Boals of Ephesoft flagged up the additional challenge that 80 per cent of data in companies is currently “dark” – i.e. stored in a format that is not easily accessible, so a company may not even be aware that it exists. This applies particularly to the data that has been provided by customers but not introduced into a formal structure: “one application might have 100 other pieces of data in it that would be useful. How do you make it clean and available?”

Ultimately, every organisation has to strike a balance between capturing as much data as possible in a structured format and ensuring its overall quality. As James Platt concluded, “It’s not about perfection, but about creating a balance. A decision based on good, if not perfect, data, is still better than a decision without a data basis.”

Remember the customer experience

Financial services companies have a particular set of challenges. Astrid Stange commented that

AXA often issues contracts that are between 50 and 100 pages long, which can be confusing not only for the company’s customers but also for its employees. For this reason, AXA is integrating essential contractual information into its customer IT systems so that service agents can access it easily.

The other factor facing all the traditional large financial services organisations is the need to compete with the new fintechs built with remote access in mind and offering their customers instant access to data regardless of their location and device. Bringing cloud technology to the forefront has therefore become imperative.

Getting everyone on the same side

In the end, the overarching message from all of our panellists came back to that “data culture” message. Achieving this is not easy, but regular training throughout the organisation is key, and focusing on developing the senior team to lead by example can help. Only with the right partnership between employees and technology will financial services organisations be able to reach their potential. Change management is critical to bringing employees together. As Astrid Stange concluded, “the efficient use of information depends on people.”

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