While we battle the COVID-19 crisis, experts say businesses that are geared up for a more digital future will be the winners at the end. The pandemic has emphasized the vital role of technology and innovation for supporting remote working, scaling digital channels, and measuring productivity. Companies have digitized overnight to keep operations going while minimizing the risk to employees by adapting to new ways of working and new technologies to aid them. And there is more to come.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Anand Natarajan, Chief Operating Officer, DBS Bank India shares how increased digitalization, greater acceptance of digital channels, and the emergence of capabilities due to COVID-19 will make for new opportunities.
COVID-19 seems to be accelerating digital transformation in the workplace across industries. How are businesses fast-tracking their digital agenda amid this crisis?
COVID-19 has been an unprecedented event, transforming industries, corporates and individuals. The pandemic has resulted in radical changes to existing behaviors and has accelerated digitalization. A recent survey highlighted that corporates and consumers have undertaken the equivalent of 5 years of digital adoption in the last few months, as a result of the pandemic.
DBS Bank had the advantage of a head-start as we embarked on a structural digitalization program a few years ago. The program, that we called GANDALF (acronym-ed after the new age technology-driven companies), reimagined the way we conducted banking. This was all-embracing - the technologies that we use, the analytics that overlay, our product proposition, the focus on the customer journey, the culture of partnerships and collaboration, and the nature of the talent that powers our organization.
We also discovered that being digital outside is only part of the journey and to make that quantum leap, you also needed to be digital within the organization.
We have, over the last couple of years, focused on completely digitalizing our internal interactions. We are almost completely paperless across all of our operations, our internal administrative systems are all digital and available across devices and all of our employees have access to virtual video-meetings. To that end, the shift to remote operations was not too difficult.
Our production platforms, too, were substantially configured for remote operations. A couple of years ago, the pivot to home would have been more difficult – both in terms of provisioning and in terms of risk management. Our investments in the new-age technology stack, under GANDALF, allowed this pivot without much effort. We were also able to commercialize added functionality to our customer portals, with the result that nearly all our customers’ requirements could be serviced digitally, all within just a few days of the lockdown.
In terms of the broader business, this has provided the opportunity for us to pivot a segment of our customers on to our digital channels.
“Before the lockdown, approximately 94% of our transactions were digital; in the one month after lockdown, this has gone all the way up to about 97%.”
Customers who had the ability to transact digitally, but were hesitant to move to digital interactions are now seeing the benefits.
We were also able to deliver digital payment solutions to address some of the challenges. Earlier this month, we partnered with TCIL to introduce a completely digital and innovative payment solution in the Indian transportation and logistics sector. This solution enables quicker and easier payments for the truck drivers, improves customer experience, and substantially speeds up the mobilization of goods. We have also seen a reduction in physical remittances (cheques, demand drafts, etc.)
How are you preparing for a post-COVID business? What investments are the most necessary to create a technology environment that will allow your company to thrive in the next normal?
The future is still evolving, business models are still changing. To that end, it is difficult to ascertain what the steady-state might be. Our efforts are directed towards being future-ready, prepared and well-positioned to thrive in an environment of volatility. We believe in marshaling our resources to be able to respond swiftly to emerging changes and be there both to manage and capitalize on the shifts and changing dynamics.
We are utilizing this time of change to test new ways of working. We are testing various models of operations, and various process chains, that can operate flexibly, without reducing efficiencies and increasing risk. We are running multiple tests to validate models.
We are evaluating more creative ways of structuring workspaces and the benefits of clustered spokes that reduce the need for central shops. We are testing various oversight and collaboration models – to ensure controls and teamwork are not compromised. We will use the outcomes of these tests to develop a sustainable workplace and operating experience.
A lot of employees must be working remotely. What are your biggest challenges with respect to dealing with this new style of working and what technologies are you employing to solve them?
Approximately 90% of our staff have been operating from home, since the lockdown - even as we continue to offer the full range of financial services to our customers. The shift to remote operations came with a few short term and structural challenges.
The short-term challenges were operational such as ensuring security as our employees were operating off desktops earlier, managing connectivity issues, applying the right security protocols even as we enabled remote access, reconfiguring fixed IP market infrastructure systems for home access, providing a secure recorded voice capability for our agents to operate from home and strengthening our surveillance mechanisms. Given our architecture and the quality of our resources, these challenges were addressed promptly.
Some of the longer-term challenges were more managerial including keeping our staff motivated and engaged, allocating and balancing workload, ensuring our staff disengages from work at end of day, and even addressing operational risks that derive from a dispersed operation.
We have gone about this with a clear focus and ensured our staff had the right tools to operate from home. We enhanced our production management architecture to improve the visual dashboarding of production systems, such that managers could supervise and allocate resources. We leveraged our surveillance systems to dynamically adjust our controls – across data loss prevention. We focused on communication- from the cadence of daily huddles to weekly informal catch-up sessions, virtual town-halls, and interactive sessions to the mental well-being of our employees. Most importantly, we celebrated the ‘everyday heroes’ who braved the pandemic to perform extraordinary feats: whether it was driving many hours across cities to deliver laptops or volunteering to stay inside a data center for many days, so our production systems were not impacted due to the lockdown.
Do you see a new tech infrastructure in the making for your organization after COVID-19?
Increased digitalization, greater acceptance of digital channels, and the emergence of capabilities due to COVID-19 will make for new opportunities. We see the following trends emerge:
1. Cloud strategy: We will see increased acceptability and adoption of public and hybrid multi-cloud and increasing use of cloud-native technologies.
2.5G: This will significantly improve efficiencies in remote working, will allow network splice and enable a private wireless network with security
3. Data and digital footprint will undergo a further quantum leap: and use of AI/ML will become even more common-place and form a central part of decisioning
4. Security will take prominence: encryption and privacy engineering as a service, and privacy engineering by design viz. the thinking around preferential privacy will be central to our processes and protocols.
5. Advanced surveillance measures will become foundational
6. IoT and Blockchain will benefit from the increased instrumentation of systems, and a larger migration of processes into digital. We expect to see greater industry level adoption of these capabilities.
What do you think are the security implications of the post COVID world because data will no longer be confined to corporate offices?
The way we conduct our business and security perimeters have been undergoing a change over the last decade, as new technologies are employed, as digitalization of business gathers momentum and with new ways of security breaches.
The post-COVID world will add to the complexity, but will structurally remain the same – how do we secure our systems against vulnerability and how do we move from physical surveillance to virtual surveillance?
We will see a substantially greater effort in strengthening perimeter security. This will have to move beyond the traditional ‘castles and moats’ approach and will need to focus on the operations layer – how controls are implemented across firewall configurations, read-write access protocols, and permissions granted.
Unusual employee behavior monitoring will gain greater prominence. This will need to dynamically adjust to individual behaviors and ways of working. There will be greater urgency to automating policy enforcement and breach identifications. Key incident responses will have to become automated, self-learning, and swift - to deal with security alerts and events at scale.
Finally, it is all about training and reinforcement. The first line of defense is the individual. We will need to continue this more frequently and intensively.