Thought Leaders Interview Series: Global Views on Digital Transformation in Banking

September 26, 2018

 ​​An interview with Sabrina Del Prete, former Digital Transformation Director at RBS England & Wales


Digital Transformation in Banking

You may have the most efficient, straight-through processing platform and yet still kill transformation. Because transformation is about the business and the people, not the IT systems.

When Sabrina Del Prete talks about digital transformation in banking she likes to use the Titanic as a metaphor.

The banking industry is like a sinking ship, she says, “Some banks will survive, others will be left behind.”

A Sinking Ship

“We will all be knocked down if Apple decides to create an Apple Bank. Or if Amazon says it wants to offer bank accounts and investments and mortgages – they already offer lending, it would be a natural next step.”

Her credentials as someone who has led the digital charge from the front mean that this is more than just speculation. It is based on the stark realities that she sees every day.

Digital transformation is the new craze in banking, and has been for some time. Chief Transformation Officers, a new breed of digital experts, have a mandate to turn the business models of traditional banks upside down, rather than just adding new digital tools to better interact with customers and staff.

Yet as Del Prete, an enigmatic Italian who speaks with frightening honesty, says, for most of them it’s a truly gigantic and daunting task.

“They have the toughest job in banking — and in most cases, they are destined to fail,” she wrote in a candid LinkedIn article dubbed, Digital Transformation in Banking — is it a Mission?

Digital Transformation in Banking: Mission Impossible

This is because transformation gets to the heart of how banks function — into the dark depths of their back offices and systems that support each function. Behind the shiny counters, slick websites and mobile apps, there are old-fashioned and ingrained ways to process transactions, manage risk and perform administrative tasks, says Del Prete:

“Compared with the modernity of the front-end, the inside of banking has a Frankenstein-esque quality. It is a monstrosity of processes and platforms, built on layers upon layers of old technology, often impossible to decipher and unbundle. And all around it, an organisational structure and a culture programmed for its own survival.”

And even banks with large-scale digital transformation projects are often failing to reform institutions whose DNA Del Prete says is “risk and innovation averse”. Banks are using technology to do what they are already doing today only slightly better. Fundamentally, the products and services that banks offer are no different to those offered centuries ago.

Banking, she says, needs to transform from within.

‘A Monstrosity of Processes’

“In most cases Banks are only changing on the surface,” Del Prete continues. “They are just putting a new layer of paint on the Titanic. They are not fixing the hole.”

To truly transform, banks must build more agile operating models that are customer-centric. They must develop an openness to innovation and organisational and technological flexibility. Banks must essentially tear down the infrastructure and culture that has shaped their industry for the past few centuries. The recent paper by Dealflo on the digitization of financial agreement process references five stages of digitization, with the final stage providing seamless access to all services through digital channels. This is where banks are striving to get to. But that’s no easy feat.

Yet the reward for banks will be businesses that are more client-centric, tech-savvy and lean — and are fundamentally changing to deliver better results. “Those who will succeed will mould how banking will operate in the next century,” Del Prete enthuses. Voice firm and charisma oozing, she maps out her vision for digital transformation in banking.


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An Agile Beast

She says there are critical things banks need to do to transform. First, they need to recognize that transformation is not a technology program. Del Prete compares transformation in banking to building a winning Formula One team — you need more than just an engine. “You may have the most efficient, straight-through processing platform and yet still kill transformation. Because transformation is about the business and the people, not the IT systems,” she says.

Building an agile, client-centric beast will require a mass change to organizational structure and culture — which Del Prete says, “is everything”. “Transforming a business in a sector that for hundreds of years has remained virtually unchanged, programmed for risk aversion and centered around products rather than clients, is hard — cynicism and resilience are essential travel companions.”

Reforming an organization’s culture is a top-down process. Banks need the decision power and the resources to move fast. Management needs to trust, empower and energize the transformation. “Like the captain of the Titanic, the CEO needs to understand that losing time can be fatal,” Del Prete says.

Risk Aversion

Too often transformation projects are siloed. Banks are keen to open trendy “innovation labs” that are housed outside the main corporate office and stuffed with ping-pong tables, break-out rooms and organic smoothies. But, “Transformation needs to be in the bank. Like a virus. Employees need to be ambassadors for change. They can’t be hidden away in a funky, colorful office with beanbags. Because there, they cannot influence the rest of the people in a bank. They risk becoming just a check-box to tick off.”

The fatal flaw that banks make is assuming that they do not need to change. For centuries banks’ line of thinking has been that competitors are other banks and that their sector is banking. Yet digital transformation is dissolving the boundaries between industries, and opening the floodgates to new competitors. These so-called “fintechs” are biting at the fringes of banks’ business models, and Del Prete says banks cannot underestimate the stalking tigers.

Fintech Disruptors

“Think Apple, Amazon, Google, Uber, Facebook, WhatsApp. They count their customers in many hundreds of millions or even billions; not even the most successful banks can compete with that,” she says. Yet it won’t be all doom and gloom.

Banks are increasingly working with fintechs as part of their digital transformation. They understand that built-at-home is not always the best option, particularly with fintech developing deep subject matter expertise as they mature. Together they may be stronger, and transformation should result in products and services that are inconspicuous and more entwined into the way people go about their everyday lives. Banks will be more agile, innovative, inclusive and responsive to customers’ needs. Re-platformed systems and a leaner operating model should cut costs and improve profitability. “If you can drive the change, the result pays back all the effort,” says Del Prete, with feeling.

The Titanic proved that even the biggest ships can sink. Whether banks can pull off digital transformation will determine whether they not only survive, but thrive.


Originally published on March 6, 2017, this article is part of an interview series produced by Insightive and OneSpan (formerly Dealflo). Insightive is an industry group in the UK focused on financial contracting and digital transformation. Acquired by OneSpan in 2018, Dealflo is a leader in identity verification and end-to-end financial agreement automation services.