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Overcoming “Run the Bank-Change the bank” challenges in retail banking

By Neil Simonsen, Cumulus Networks

The financial services industry is still laden with legacy systems. Many organisations trying to adopt modern technologies are doing so alongside older, more incumbent systems. Retail banks in particular are facing an increasing number of challenges. Not only when it comes to meeting demands from customers who need them to be more open and agile, but also when tackling issues around cost and regulation.

Known as Run the Bank-Change the bank (RTB-CTB) – where organisations try to run effectively while operating two types of system alongside one another – this way of working causes huge problems. Both from a technical and cultural standpoint. The temptation is always to take a short-term approach to solve these issues. But in the long-run, this leads to run-the-bank needs preventing banks from putting crucial innovation plans into motion.

Technical and cultural challenges

One of the biggest technical issues banks find themselves with when running legacy and modern systems in parallel is dealing with multi-vendor environments. While on their own, each vendor provides helpful services and support for specific functions. But when combined they can create a logistical and technical headache for senior leaders.

The vast majority of the time, this comes down to internal teams not speaking the same language. To get the most out of multi-vendor scenarios, banks need technical teams that can do it all. But creating this dream team takes time – in some cases years. And it relies on teams that span generations working well together. The combination of those who have worked with legacy systems for years, with bright, young people who are friendly to the legacy technologies that run alongside their new emerging ones, is needed to execute RTB-CTB successfully across retail banking.

But this is much easier said than done. More often than not, implementing RTB-CTB quickly leads to ‘cultural debt’. With often fierce disputes between departments over which technology platforms are most in need of updating – and so which require the most budget. While the front office is primarily concerned with enhancing UX and customer interfaces, regulatory and product changes usually come top on the list of priorities. Legal, compliance, tax and reputational issues have always trumped cosmetics and customer experience in retail banking.

The fallout of this isolates IT and whole departments from other critical business functions. And where technical decisions based on meeting new regulations or compliance go against the culture of the organisation, further divisions are created between teams. Not only in terms of competing for funding, resources and skills. The attention of the business is completely divided.

Handing autonomy back to IT 

Overcoming the inherent issues with RTB-CTB starts with giving autonomy back to IT. To ensure the successful running of both legacy infrastructure and new systems, IT leaders need to be given the freedom to provide the much needed flexibility, agility and simplicity retail banks need.

For instance, vendor lock-ins can cost retail banks thousands of pounds each year, as they become dependent on products and services while being unable to use other vendors without large moving costs. Yet many retail banks end up paying substantial maintenance costs for aging products. By handing back control over RTB-CTB processes to IT, senior leaders can easily identify which products or services are becoming money drains. And pull the plug before getting locked in to long-term contracts. With the savings made, banks would be able to re-buy their entire estate after six to seven years. Ultimately solving the entire RTB-CTB problem in one hit.

With these cost savings, banks could also look at collapsing the number of management interfaces involved in RTB-CTB. Bringing organisations down to a single point of management for all IT infrastructures – both old and new. This would significantly reduce the chances of getting into ‘cultural debt’. With one single touch point for IT focusing all departments in the same direction, regardless of whether they used legacy or modern technology systems.

Moving to software-first

Ultimately, to succeed in the new era of challenger banks, traditional incumbents need to start building technology in the same way companies like Facebook do – in a software-defined manner from the ground up. Retail banks should look to their customers, and frame their IT systems – both old and new – around what they need to succeed in their own environment. Ensuring there is one, single point of view for all IT infrastructure, and that departments work together to create this, will help overcome the challenges of running both legacy infrastructure and new systems.