An Interview with Sumit Oberai, Senior Vice President – Digital Technology, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC)


“Given how technologically dependent digital change is, the strength of that partnership is critical to success. Equally important, though, is the partnerships between the digital organisation and the lines of business.”

FST Media: You oversee RBC’s API developer portal – a first in Canada – which leverages the bank’s data to facilitate third-party product development and innovation. One year on from its unveiling, what fruit has the initiative borne for RBC?

Oberai: RBC’s developer portal was launched for two primary reasons: to extend the reach of RBC’s technology footprint by embedding it with partners and services where our clients are already spending time, thus providing convenience and more integrated and innovative services; and to allow a single way of implementing these partnerships, versus the numerous ‘point-to-point’ or one-off solutions we had executed in the past. One year in, I would characterise it as a very positive experience for us, but it’s still early days.

We have a number of partnerships through our RBC Ventures division, such as with Wave Accounting that allows seamless integration between banking and accounting for small businesses. We’ve also enabled client-facing solutions around financial planning with third-party tools for our Wealth Management clients.

I think what we’ve been most happy with is the time to market advantage we’ve seen in these integrations. The integration now often takes less time than negotiating the partnership!

FST Media: What defines a successful customer interaction in the digital age? Is there an existing process or technology that you feel hinders banks in meeting customers’ expectations?

Oberai: We believe there are two primary types of interactions our customers are looking for. The first is simple, fast, and convenient for ‘everyday’ type activities, like checking balances, paying a bill, getting a limit increase, or even opening a chequing account/applying for a credit card. For those interactions, we want them to really be a few clicks from completion – comparable to Amazon’s one-click purchasing.

Then there are more complex ‘advice based’ interactions where, in Canada at least, our clients want human interaction and often still face-to-face. We see this in mortgages, commercial loans, investments, etc. For those types of interactions, digitisation generally means both driving adviser productivity by having the right tools that allow the adviser to focus on client interaction, and needs assessment versus spending time on fulfilment in systems. It also means creating the right customer-facing interactions so that a client can quickly get to an adviser mid-stream in an application or seamlessly switch from self-service to assisted.

When we think of what technologies are hindering us, the first thing that often gets named is the ‘legacy’ or core systems. Like many large banks, we have core systems that are 40+ years old; however, I am of two minds here – we have been able to rapidly digitise and provide industry-leading and client-facing solutions while building on top of these cores, often investing in simplification as we go. So, I think the story is a little more complicated than simply legacy/non-legacy. There are some barriers like real-time processing but, generally, we are able to bring the right solutions to market on top of these highly reliable core systems.

FST Media: In today’s rapidly changing digital landscape, what measures should banks take to remain relevant and avoid being reduced to mere utilities?

Oberai: RBC is investing heavily in its client and adviser experiences as well as digitally enabled new products. We believe these will allow us to stay relevant and avoid disintermediation or becoming a utility. In the past couple of years, we have brought to market new products, such as RBC InvestEase (robo-adviser) and myAdvisor, which allows digitally enabled remote financial and retirement planning. Additionally, we’ve leveraged our size and scale to work with partners in the Canadian market to deliver incremental value to our clients.  A great example is our ‘linked loyalty’ partnership with Petro Canada, where our clients get 3 cents off gas at the pump simply by paying with any of our cards (an innovative improvement on a traditional co-brand approach).

Finally, we have launched RBC Ventures whose tagline is ‘Beyond Banking’ to help embed ourselves more deeply in our clients’ lives by serving their needs beyond banking. All of these help to cement our relationships with our clients while also giving our clients greater value by choosing RBC.

FST Media: Prior to your joining RBC, you held various roles at Canadian retail heavyweight Indigo, eventually rising to Chief Information Officer in 2008. How did your experience at Indigo prepare you for a career shift into the banking world in 2016?

Oberai: Indigo is Canada’s largest book retailer. At the time that I joined in 2006, Indigo had roughly 50 per cent share of the book market in Canada. As you can imagine, given eCommerce, the rise of Amazon, and the introduction of eBooks, Indigo went through a tremendous period of disruption and change. Many of the changes are parallel to what banking is experiencing now: our customers wanting to interact with us in different ways; traffic shifting from our physical ‘stores’ to our digital channels; the need to acquire customers and generate leads digitally; and, dealing with new non-traditional competitors. 

Perhaps, most importantly, my time at Indigo helped me to learn how to lead an organisation through a change driven by external disruption. In many ways, the pace of change and sense of urgency was greater at Indigo, but the stakes are higher at RBC, given its size and scale, employing over 80,000 people worldwide.

FST Media: Looking at some of the professional challenges you’ve faced as a senior digital leader, what lessons can you impart to other digital chiefs in getting the best out of their employees and their digital assets?

Oberai: At RBC, we have a jointly led digital team across technology and ‘the business’, and we have two leaders who jointly lead this team. This partnership has served us very well, with many joint goals and accountabilities. Given how technologically dependent digital change is, the strength of that partnership is critical to success. Equally important, though, is the partnerships between the digital organisation and the lines of business. So, forming a ‘triangle of partnership’ is really key.

A second lesson I might give is that, as we shift to an agile operating model – which I suspect most digital organisations are – to do it at a measured pace to bring the organisation along for the journey. We’ve had a mantra of “start slow to move fast” as we bring more and more parts of the organisation into an agile way of working. Lastly, finding the right balance between identifying the strong talent internally that knows RBC and its systems and has the right approach to changing the way we work, and partnering with select external talent who have seen digital transformation elsewhere, has been a key benefit to our teams.

FST Media: Finally, what is the best career advice you have received and how have you sought to put these learnings into practice?

Oberai: I think the best advice I received was pretty simple: “Do great work and partner well” – eventually the rest will fall into place. I interpret that as really letting your work speak for itself and being a great colleague and leader, as well as someone people would want to have as part of their team.