Saher Arar, deputy CIO and head of IT strategy and planning at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, explains how ‘Bank in a Box’ is enabling international growth.
NBAD is one of the United Arab Emirates’ largest banks, with operations in 12 other countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Oman, Malaysia, Hong Kong, France, Switzerland, the UK and the US. It is now embarking on an ambitious growth plan that includes expansion into 35 countries by 2020. Since it was founded in 1968, its main focus has been corporate banking, but it is now also moving into retail.
I-CIO: The National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) has an aggressive international growth strategy. How are you implementing that, and how is IT supporting the plan?
Saher Arar (SA): We currently have a major initiative called ‘Bank in a Box,’ which I’d compare to franchising — like McDonald’s, for example — where everything is the same no matter where you are in the world. Likewise, we want to have the same sort of feel when you go to any NBAD branch, no matter where you are. To do that, you need to have standard technology, whatever the location. And to have the same technology you need to have the same processes worldwide. So there are several streams happening at the same time at NBAD to allow us to get to the point where Bank in a Box is achievable — and I have the pleasure of managing them.
I-CIO: What are these main streams of activity?
SA: In a nutshell, we are working on: the creation of a new target operating model for the group (as we are primarily a corporate bank but are now expanding into retail operations); application portfolio standardization; establishing the same processes, policies and procedures in every country; implementing a single, new core banking system; and centralizing everything in a single data center at our head office.
That data center will be backed up by a disaster recovery (DR) site, also situated in the UAE, plus we’ll have a cold DR site out of the region. Some of these streams are IT-related and some are not, but for the sake of consistency and accountability, and in order to coordinate activities between IT and the other business functions, it was decided to combine them all under one program with a single manager.
I-CIO: What will be the major business benefits of Bank in a Box?
SA: A huge one is speed to market. We don’t want to spend six to eight months planning and six to eight months implementing. We will just say to the local branch, “OK, these are the services we provide. Which ones do you want?” And they will all be available from our centralized servers. We’re hoping to get any branch, or even a new country, up and running in four weeks — whereas in the past it has taken eight months or more.
I-CIO: Why is speed so important?
SA: Mainly because customers are not going to wait for you to be ready. If other banks have a service that customers are looking for, and you’re not doing it yourself, they will just go somewhere else. On a personal level, I had that experience when I was looking for a new car recently. I wanted a convertible white model with a brown interior. I went to Mercedes, they didn’t have one. I went to Porsche, they didn’t have one. I went to BMW, they had one. So I bought it. I wasn’t loyal to one brand, I just wanted that type of car. And customers are going to have the same feeling whether it’s a bank, a car, a hotel or a restaurant. So we have to be there and ready every time the customer demands a new service.
I-CIO: What are the main challenges you are facing?
SA: Beyond all the technical and business process transformations, the biggest challenge is change management. Getting that right is what will make or break the program. We have a change management team, and as a starting point we sent them to our subsidiary in Egypt — where we have begun implementing our new core banking system — to identify who will be most affected by these changes, and how, and what kind of learning curve is required. We had a concern that if an employee has been doing something at the bank a certain way for the past 20 years, and now we have to tell them, “We’re going to do it in a different way from now on,” then most probably they’ll tell us to get lost.
However, we found that in Egypt they have suffered for a long time with an old core banking system, so they believe that by buying into the new way of working they will reap the benefits faster than anyone else. This kind of learning can then be transferred to other markets.
They also realize that this initiative is coming from very high up in the business — and this really helps us to manage the change. The Bank in a Box program has support right across our executive committee, and without this we wouldn’t be able to do it. We have seven senior general managers and a chief executive, and I meet with them regularly so they can trickle their support down to other levels. This helps their direct reports to ensure their teams are in line with what the bank is trying to achieve.
Role of IT
I-CIO: You are an IT leader who is managing rapid business transformation. Is it IT’s role to lead this kind of change?
IT cannot dictate, but the business cannot live without IT and the enablement it provides. If a head of business thinks that without technology they can compete, they’re mistaken; and if IT thinks that without understanding the business they can lead, they’re also wrong. To add more customers and penetrate more markets, the business needs technology.
The lines between business and IT are getting very blurred, so at NBAD we’re building bridges between the enterprise architecture, information technology, and planning and strategy offices. When I talk to the various lines of business at NBAD, I don’t speak the language of technology — or even business. I speak the language of customer service and, like all of my colleagues, must ask continually, “How can we serve our customers better?”