Interview: Codrin Arsene – the power of digital transformation in financial services industry
Codrin Arsene, CEO of Digital Authority Partners, has been a powerful force in the healthcare industry, where his firm has helped dozens of companies embrace the positive effects of digital transformation. Now, Arsene believes the movement is shifting to financial services, which he elaborates on in this exclusive interview.
Tell us about Digital Authority
Digital Authority Partners is an end-to-end product development company. We work with executives at various companies, from startups to Fortune 500 companies, to define and execute complex, omnichannel digital strategies. Using a robust analytical framework, we help companies prioritse digital features, enable new processes, design and develop intuitive experiences that will engage and retain users while reducing our clients’ cost to serve.
How did your company became a facilitator of digital transformation?
We were in the business of digital transformation long before we started the company. The leadership team at Digital Authority Partners has helped define and build some of the most used web and mobile applications in the US. Before DAP, we worked at Sears Holdings Corporation, Shell, Walmart, Ricoh Americas and other multi-billion dollar companies.
Coming from such large – and at times, inflexible – corporations, we have seen first hand the complex challenges of aligning IT, marketing, and other online business units to create a seamless omnichannel experience for end users.
For example, I had personally worked on rolling out one of the largest loyalty programs in America. I experienced first hand the difficulty of executing a programme used by over 100 million people each month across online, in-store, mobile, call centres and social media platforms.
Ultimately, when we started the company, and when we landed our first enterprise client (one of the largest grocery chains in America), we knew what we were getting into – the challenges we will face, and how to address them.
What are the most common misconceptions that organisations have about digital transformation?
Digital transformation is not just about the digital component. It has profound downstream implications for other systems that executives rarely think of up front about integrating into a cohesive digital experience.
For example, a real digital transformation cannot occur without revamping your back office systems (both technical and operational). Many companies roll out ambitious, revamped digital experiences that are not fully integrated with supply chain, call centres, distribution centers and other “offline” components. This not only creates a disjointed experience for customers, but also a massive headache for companies from an operational standpoint.
This is why, ironically, when organisations roll out digital transformational initiatives, they often see an increase in operational costs, confusion, and even customer dissatisfaction with the changes made.
How do you resolve those misconceptions?
It all comes down to creating a robust vision upfront. When we get to a new company, especially in the enterprise sector, we often start with a one-two day workshop where we invite all the potential stakeholders that would be impacted by a company-wide digital transformation initiative.
Our goal is to facilitate an internal conversation among resources and use the institutional knowledge these valuable employees have to get a true idea of what we’re going into. To our surprise, we often find that these various stakeholders have never really been brought together to collaborate across teams and verticals.
This is a huge issue. Lack of collaboration often leads to outlandish costs and lost opportunities.
For example, one of our clients spent $5 million on a massive digital overhaul over a 14 month period, only to roll it back due to operational issues and customer backlash for implementing a bad strategy. When we were brought in to help sort out the mess, we discovered that the project was carried out in such a way that each department worked independently to implement non-coordinated strategies that were stitched together right before launch. Of course when it went live, it was a nightmare because no one really owned the end to end process and asked the critical question: does this project really work, as a whole, for our company and our customers?
Though extreme, this is what happens when companies do not take the time to create a robust end to end strategy, with clear key performance indicators defined upfront, and lack a clear vision and good project plan.
We bring the right people together, we try to break silos, we document people’s fears and expectations, and then we work with the primary stakeholders to drive an inclusive strategy that can actually succeed.
Digital Authority has been active in aiding digital transformation in the healthcare industry. What is the driver for digital transformation?
I personally find healthtech to be the most exciting industry to be in. Yet, many companies run away from enterprise healthcare digital transformation projects.
In all fairness, they are scary endeavours. You often deal with antiquated back-end platforms, homegrown digital solutions, and incredibly tightly coupled systems.
Challenges are also immense when working with people. You often have to deal with people who are resistant to change, and sometimes, scared to innovate.
Yet healthtech is a huge opportunity for everyone in digital strategy. Through one of our clients, we get to define and reimagine how doctors interact with technology to be more informed, help patients faster, and learn new things. For another client, we’re working on a new and exciting communication platform that will break silos between doctors and departments to provide better quality care to more patients, faster.
We’re now at a point where digital transformation in healthcare is becoming a reality. Yet it will take time, especially for incumbents to really take their strategy to the next level. With some clients we get to do very innovative, cutting edge work. But with most of them, we’re simply helping them “catch up with the times”, so to speak.
Regardless of what approach a company chooses or what drives most enterprise healthcare companies to invest in digital (most often to reduce costs), it’s really exciting to work in this field. Virtually no other industry allows you to truly help millions of people with solutions and products that have the potential to save lives or provide better care management.
What can financial services learn from your experience in facilitating digital transformation in the healthcare industry?
That’s a very, very interesting question. Because to a large extent, financial services and healthcare are very similar.
Fintech and healthcare have operated in an “offline” mode for most of their history. And both are very high margin industries. Which means neither has really dealt with significant pressure to innovate quickly.
But there is one thing fintech can really learn from healthcare. There is tremendous opportunity to optimize a company’s bottomline by restructuring existing antiquated processes, systems, policies and procedures through the streamlining of initiatives. Both industries are often blamed for their opaque decision-making, lack of instant results, and lack of options to interact with businesses via digital initiatives. Both industries continue to rely heavily on fax and call center communications. Tell me, when’s the last time you sent a fax?
Healthcare as an industry has already begun modernising its back-end infrastructure to enable instant decision-making, which is often automated (think artificial intelligence, AI). In the fintech space, we’re seeing how blockchain technologies are making interactions between institutions safer, faster, and more secure.
Bottomline: financial services should get on board to really streamline their back office systems. It will be a huge reduction in operational costs and will make the lives of millions of people better and easier.
Speaking of AI, can you talk a little about the interplay of AI and digital transformation?
Absolutely. Let me be clear: AI, as a methodology and a discipline, is the best thing that has happened to humanity since the birth of the internet. Now I cannot predict the future, but I can tell you this based on what we know about the past: nothing we’ve seen so far will have more profound implications for how humans interact with each other, how humans and systems interact with each other, or how systems interact with each other.
Put another way: the innovation space has been rather crowded over the last 20 years. And that’s a good thing. It means millions of people have come up with millions of ideas that were implemented to make our lives a little better. As a result, the barrier to entry has been higher and higher each year.
Bring in AI, and now everything is suddenly up for grabs. Let me explain.
Let’s say you’re a company like Groupon (the biggest marketplace for local deals). Going against Groupon in this business climate is insane. It’s like going against Amazon in e-commerce. With AI’s machine learning algorithms, I could solve Groupon’s biggest problem: lackluster, non-personalised recommendations. If tomorrow, a startup develops a framework that can actually learn from people’s browsing and order history to only show relevant, personalised local deals, they will have developed something that has more inherent value than a multi-billion dollar company.
My point is simple: with artificial intelligence, you can now disrupt – again – every single industry. AI paves the way for an innovative ecosystem in which companies can do the same thing as their competitors but better, and with more accurate results.
So it’s a really exciting time we’re living in. And only companies that truly adopt artificial intelligence will survive in ten years. That, I have no doubt.
Can you talk a little about the interplay of mobile technologies and digital transformation?
There was mobile hysteria from about 2009 to 2015. Everyone wanted an app. Everyone thought mobile was the real solution to any problem (real or imagined). I’m not saying mobile is done for. I’m just saying mobile technologies are now only one channel. And that channel will continue to shrink.
We’re already moving towards a UI-less world. Chatbots make it easy to get critical information without going through multiple pages and a user authentication protocol (think Digit.co for the financial industry). Voice-enabled smart assistants are growing in popularity and usage by the year (Alexa, Siri, Cortana and the devices on which these assistants are installed have skyrocketed). Progressive mobile apps (which load natively in a mobile browser) will eventually eliminate the need to have any apps on your device.
The smartphone will continue to be the gateway to information, entertainment and decision making. But those betting on leveraging mobile apps to really drive digital transformation may be disappointed. By the time you build and roll out your next mobile app, your users will already be demanding services via other channels.
Tell us about the typical customer, and what influenced them to embrace digital transformation?
There’s no cookie-cutter answer here, I’m afraid. We have clients who come to us at the ideation phase and whom we work with as partners from day one. Other clients come to us because they have a non-performing digital product and want our assistance to turn around their digital strategy. Or, clients may come to us because they simply don’t have a strategy or an idea and need assistance defining a vision that will help them catch up to, and even surpass, their competitors.
Whatever their reason, our clients are typically enterprise heads of product management, CTOs and CIOs, and VPs of strategy or customer experience who are on a mission. They’re typically fighting an uphill battle. And they need our support to defend digital transformation strategies and initiatives.
They need help creating compelling business cases and gathering data (from both internal and external sources) to sell their ideas. They need help creating robust strategic roadmaps that are prioritised to meet their key performance indicators. And they often are alone in this battle. That’s where we come in. To listen to them and help them succeed. To be there, side by side, in the trenches, until amazing products are built and released. And ultimately, until we help change both mindsets and processes to do what’s best for their customers and their company.