An interview with Abhijit Singh


ICICI Bank’s Head of Retail Bank Technology speaks with FST Media about the challenge of balancing security and privacy with the growing proliferation of mobile devices.

FST Media: What technology or innovation will be the single biggest game changer for retail banking in the year ahead?

Singh: In an ever-evolving technology space, identifying a single biggest game changer is a tough task, as today’s game changers will not be applicable to tomorrow’s business drivers. IT strategy must be robust yet focused, to incorporate newer technologies like big data, social, mobile, analytics, cloud and biometrics which may prove to be the biggest game changers in the years to come. The use of data analytics to build platforms for higher growth, quicker risk mitigation, improved resource productivity and superior customer service will be a key differentiator. Implementation of end-to-end payment solutions across all services of the bank in the mobile payment space will also prove effective in retail banking. Payment solutions using new technologies like Near Field Communication, mobile wallets, social media banking  would result in an increase in convenience. ICICI Bank has already implemented banking on Facebook and Twitter, and through these new solutions we can also focus on bringing about greater speed and efficiency in payments services. 

FST Media: What are your IT priorities for the next 12 to 18 months?

Singh: At ICICI, the ‘khayaal aapka’ mantra has been associated with the customer-first initiative, which emphasizes customer focus and providing world-class service to our customers. Better engagement with customers of the Bank, across various touchpoints, through all available channels, continues to remain a key priority. Our focus will be on using social and unstructured data to build customer profiles at every engagement, to know more about customers’ financial needs and present them with relevant and customised product offerings. There will be an increased focus on innovative use of technology, to transform the Bank branches into more collaborative and relevant information and distribution centres. Innovation in mobile payments, service quality and cross-selling of products, among others, will be offered. Emphasis on deploying technology solutions promoting consumer convenience will continue.

FST Media: How will ICICI leverage big data insights to strengthen its retail bank offerings in the future?

Singh: The bank believes big data can be defined in terms of four Vs: Volume, Variety, Velocity and Veracity.

At ICICI Bank, big data is positioned to build platforms for higher growth, quicker risk mitigation, improved resource productivity and superior customer service. The objective of the implementation of big data tools and technologies at ICICI Bank is to transform the basis of business decisions, changing the approach from customer “outcomes” to customer “interactions”. Ability to influence interactions, generate the desired outcomes, on near real-time basis, by using data of massive volumes, variety and velocity will be the key. 

FST Media: What is the next big thing in payments and how is ICICI Bank enhancing its payments functionality?

Singh: The next big thing will be implementation of end-to-end payment solutions across all services of the bank. Innovative credit/debit cards such as Unifare Transit Credit/Debit Cards, contactless payments and Expressions Debit Cards (ICICI Bank’s flagship customisable design payment product) etc. are proving to very effective and have been keeping customers engaged. Payment Solutions on credit card, EMI on debit cards,  Efficient Payment Solution for toll collection, cardless cash withdrawal, mobile wallets (Pockets by ICICI Bank) payments service using Twitter account (icicibankpay) are the latest innovative offerings from the Bank. 

FST Media: How can banks balance the need for security and privacy with the growing proliferation of mobile devices?

Singh: According to a global report, there are over 1.2 billion smartphone users worldwide. Security remains a major concern in adopting mobile banking. Large organisations recognise mobile device threats and vulnerabilities, and understand that they need appropriate security protection. Given the existing competitive market dynamics, any important financial mobile application rollout takes on increased strategic importance. Securing all feature-packed mobile apps is therefore critical. New threats are always emerging, so security architects need to be forewarned and forearmed regarding the trends and vulnerabilities, to ensure their organisation’s mobile apps are safe before they are implemented. Mobile applications and related security breaches receive much media attention and can undermine a company’s reputation. By building comprehensive security features into strategic, feature-rich mobile apps from the get-go, organisations can keep sensitive transactional and interactional data from the prying eyes of those who wish to do them harm, over the near and longer term.

FST Media: How significant is the threat posed by the emergence of digital disruptors like Apple and Google to retail banking? 

Singh: Electronic payments have become a pivotal part of providing convenience to customers, and use of cash payments is on a decline in today’s world. Innovation in payments has emerged from non-banks, like PayPal and cash-rich internet players, such as Google (Google Wallet) and Apple (passbook, iBeacons). Even though banks pay an average of four per cent to seven per cent interest to customers on their deposits, in age of online and mobile shopping, online shoppers are finding it convenient to keep money in prepaid wallets (no “two factor” authentication) backed by various deals and discounts. Control over the customer purchase experience and ownership of a rich seam of transactional data, is another compelling reason why payments are attractive to these players. ICICI bank is looking at the current scenario as an opportunity, rather than as a threat. It is making inroads into several avenues for expansion, such as Mobile wallet. ICICI Bank has recently launched “Pockets”, a digital bank that has a wallet functionality, which can be used across a large number of merchants as one of the payment options. ICICI bank has created payment solutions across various platforms and is already reshaping for the digital future.

FST Media: How will your experience in managing large scale IT transformational projects help ICICI in taking further steps in digital evolution?

Singh: In the last few decades, many businesses have grown in leaps and bounds, due to their continued investment in technology. Almost every organisation now has a digital strategy, and they provision funds to invest in technology to achieve their business objectives. IT transformational projects are generally derived from IT strategy, hence IT strategy should be focused on adding more value to business. At ICICI, we constantly strive to seek new ways to making banking simple and seamless, to enhance the overall customer experience. A strong digital presence, therefore, has always been part of the overall strategy of ICICI Bank. ICICI Bank has evolved as a leader in this space within India.  The bank has many “firsts” to its credit, like Internet Banking, Mobile Banking,  Facebook Banking, Twitter banking  to name a few. ICICI Bank was also among the first banks in the country to launch ATMs and 24/7 centralised call-centre processes. ICICI Bank continues to lead through innovation with the latest digital initiatives like 24/7 Touch Banking Branches, Tab Banking, Cash Deposit Machines, the new ICICI Bank website – the first responsive website in the banking industry in the country, and a host of new mobile apps. Today, ICICI Bank has completely embraced digital technologies in all its processes, from front-end sales to back-end processing, and has emerged as a strong and mature digital organisation.

FST Media: How do you encourage a culture of innovation in your team?

Singh: Nurturing a culture that allows for innovation is the key. Creativity is a prime leadership attribute. Hyper-growth companies credit a culture of innovation as their primary driver of success.

ICICI Bank empirically analyses innovation strategy choices. Execution of the right capabilities and aligning with innovation strategy at the right time, results in overall development process. The legacy of innovation has manifested itself in the Bank’s innovation process. The innovation at the Bank is a well-structured process, and is overseen by the Innovation Steering Committee (ISC). Employees are encouraged to think big but start small, look for ideas everywhere and feel empowered to carry these ideas to implementation. Venturing into uncharted territory has been a legacy of the organization. There is a belief of fostering autonomy and giving consideration to teams. 

FST Media: What information sources do you consider invaluable for your job, and why?

Singh: Market information, in terms of customers’ evolving needs and lifestyle, technology, potential risks, market environment, channels and processes proves to be a great source of information. In this dynamic world, the more access to such information we have, the better the decisions that will be made for our products and offerings.

FST Media: With respect to career development, what is the best advice you have ever received?

Singh: “Collaboration, not competition, brings out the best in us”. This advice I have kept with me since the start of my career and I still advise all my team members to follow this as a rule. I always derive energy from working in teams and have focused my career on leading groups towards collective achievement. I realised early on that I am at my best when involved with teams and I have enjoyed numerous examples of reaching goals together with my colleagues. 

FST Media: How important is the role of the CIO and what are your views on its changing career path as it moves towards technology?

Singh: The CIO role has evolved over years and it is one of the important centres of decision-making across today’s organisations. The CIO role is changing and there is an increased focus on service management. As SaaS, IaaS, BPO and other more flexible value-delivery techniques are brought into organisations, the CIO also functions as a third party manager for the organisation, and is required to demonstrate exceptional vendor-management skills. Many of the CIOs are now working to address one colossal challenge that is impacting almost every company in operation today i.e. “big data”. In principle, a CIO in a modern organisation is expected to possess business acumen and the capability to relate to the organisation as a whole, as opposed to being a technological expert with limited functional business know-how. The CIO position is as much about foreseeing trends in the market place with regard to technology, as it is about ensuring that the business steers through these trends with expert guidance and proper strategic IT planning that is aligned to the corporate strategy of the organisation. 

FST Media: Every leader has a legacy they wish to be remembered for, what is yours?

Singh: I would like to be remembered as a values-driven leader who built high-performing teams that are customer focused and always open to change. I would also want to be remembered as a strong partner to business – one who enhanced operational efficiency and effectiveness, and was a driver of business innovation. I also wish to be remembered for helping to nurture the success of the next generation.