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A full 10% of jobs at ABN AMRO are solely focused on screening customers and transactions. Digital transformation can improve this personnel-heavy process, says Christian Bornfeld, who has been Chief Innovation & Technology Officer of the bank for two years. He believes that banking has been going digital for a long time, in fact, and this is entirely in the interests of customers.

When ABN AMRO launched the highly successful payment app Tikkie in 2016, it set out its position as a digital leader alongside ING. Digital transformation is a serious matter here, as evidenced by the fact that Chief Innovation & Technology Officer Christian Bornfeld has a seat on the Executive Board.Bornfeld believes the easiest way to stay at the front of digital transformation is to organise the IT system as centrally as possible. The Danish expert is aiming to continue the good work already started when he took up his role in 2018, saying ‘there was already a solid IT base within ABN AMRO.’ Despite this modesty, under his leadership, the bank has taken huge leaps towards a fully agile model. It is also switching to a set of DevOps practices – now standard in the banking sector – where digitalisation isn’t seen as an extra but the starting point for ‘digital first’ banking practices. This offers the business a huge number of opportunities but it also requires a lot from its employees.

What has the impact of the corona crisis been on ABN AMRO's digital transformation process?

Christian Bornfeld: ‘It has really speeded up the pace of change. Since mid-March, around 90% of our employees have been working from home, and this transition has gone really well. Internally too, online meetings have been working brilliantly. You can really see how banking has transformed into a digital activity in the modern era. Think about it: in more and more countries, people hardly ever pay with cash and some don’t do it at all; payment and credit cards are being replaced by digital wallets, and cheques have virtually disappeared. Increasingly, customers can simply give a digital signature and they no longer need to go to a bank branch to do it. A customer sitting at home with his iPad can access a bank advisor right there, which means we effectively have 17 million offices in the Netherlands. Video banking has swiftly become the new normal thanks to this crisis.’

Christian Bornfeld (1976) is Chief Innovation & Technology Officer at ABN AMRO. He began his careerbegan his career at IBM as a certified IT-architect for the financial sector. He held various positions at Danske Bank and Nordea, moved to ABN AMRO at the beginning of 2018.

Your competitors are also fast establishing apps, online investments and other types of digital banking: can you still distinguish yourself from the competition?

'Yes. For example, when we interact with clients, we want to be the ones providing the most relevant, proactive advice. But we can come up with new technology for specific purposes too, as we did with Tikkie. We can also use data analysis to offer products like tailor-made repayment schedules for business and retail customers who are struggling to repay a loan on time. That gives them some room to breathe and increases the chances that we will recover the loans in full.’

How have you organised digital and technological innovation within the bank?

‘We manage digital transformation very centrally. Like many other banks, some of our IT systems have always done a good job but are now about 40 years old. We are getting ever better at unravelling this web of IT and rejuvenating our IT systems. We have now outsourced IT application maintenance, which used to take up 30% of our IT capacity. We buy standardised software rather than developing it ourselves, so that we can spend more time developing new information technology. In the past, banks would hire in expensive consultants for all of their IT. ABN AMRO worked with IBM for all of its infrastructure needs and our developers were in India. But now we believe in having a strong, internal core of IT development and so we invest heavily in our IT team’s skills. We also invest in the skills of employees who have to work with this technology in house. If we want to stay relevant, our employees need to have the skills get on with all of this digital technology.’

‘The more data you have, the quicker you can see certain patterns

and track down financial crime’

Is this enough to build bridges between the business and your IT department?

‘That’s the question. This is why our group innovation department includes colleagues from different business lines. They take part in innovation initiatives for twelve to eighteen months and then return to their area of business. In this way, we ensure that we are innovating on the basis of true customer needs and not from an ivory IT tower. This rotation also means that these employees can take back the innovation spirit to the “factory floor”.’

Is your innovation department free innovation department free to innovate or does it have hard targets?

‘It used to be more of a techLab, where people could experiment with new technology in a playful way, but now we have given the department some specific goals. A certain percentage of our income must now come from innovations and new business models, which means there is a lot less leeway The department manages a portfolio of new business models and innovations, and has a number of fixed steps: is there a problem? Is one solution better than others? Will people want to pay for it? Can we scale it up? If so, will it be a spin-off? We did this with Tikkie and also with New10, an innovation that allows SMEs to take out a digital loan. It’s also possible to operate the other way around through a ‘spin-in’, which brings in knowledge from outside. But the key for all of these initiatives is that if it doesn’t seem to work, we stop right away. Learn fast, fail fast.’

A customer sitting at home with his iPad can access a bank advisor right there,

so we effectively have 17 million offices in the Netherlands

Is this enough to build bridges between the business and your IT department?

Are you afraid of competition from fintechs and bigtechs? ‘Not really, but we are on the look out. Bigtechs are naturally more customer-oriented than banks, and they are also more tech savvy. But, on the other hand, consumers trust us much more when it comes to treating their data confidentially. This is logical because for tech companies, selling data is a vital part of their business model. Consumers still feel their financial data is something private, and this gives banks an advantage. Bigtechs also lack the complex financial expertise to advise clients, and I think that the Dutch market is too small for bigtechs like Google and Amazon. It wouldn’t be cost-effective for them to enter it.’

Why did you take the initiative last year to join forces with big Dutch companies in the fight against digital crime?

‘It seemed like a good idea to talk to companies in different sectors about how they deal with digital protection. Criminals increasingly exchange information about where software and company networks are vulnerable, so it makes sense for companies to share their experiences about this too.’

ING and ABN AMRO recently had a slap on the wrist for flouting anti-money laundering legislation. Do you talk to other major banks about this subject too?

‘As far as financial crime goes, we work together under the umbrella of the Dutch Banking Association to monitor financial transactions better. The interesting thing is that the more data you have, the quicker you can see certain patterns and track down financial crime. So this requires co-operation, respecting of course the privacy regulations. We also work closely with regulators on this.’

How many of your employees actually work on screening customers and transactions?

‘About 10% of all of our employees are soley on screening customers and transactions. This is a good thing, of course, and these are new tasks for us, but some of them are crying out for automation and digitisation. Right now, an employee gets an alert and might spend hours looking at it. If it is judged a suspicious transaction, then another colleague will look into it and we could eventually report it to the government’s Financial Intelligence Unit. By employing AI, we should be able to do all this with fewer than 1,000 employees, without compromising the quality of screening in any way.’


Sector: Financial services | Workforce: 18,000 | Innovation/technology team 5,000 | Activities Private and corporate banking for retail, private and corporate customers | Net profit 2019 € 2.05 billion

Read more inspirational cases in our special FINANCIALS IN TRANSITION

The CTO's of leading financials such as ING, ABN AMRO, Rabobank and AEGON give insights into their own, unique approach to digitalisation. And discover how BDO's integrated approach makes the most of the opportunities which digital transformation can bring.