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NCB debuts ‘agile’ banking

Published:Thursday | October 26, 2017 | 12:00 AMAvia Collinder
NCB Agile Lab team members (from left) Leon Wright, Alex Leslie and Basil Batchelor, are focused on their work on Wednesday, October 25, 2017. The lab is housed at NCB Financial Group headquarters, The Atrium, on Trafalgar Road in New Kingston.
Programmer in charge of a team building, John-Matthew Sinclair points to the kanban board at left with sticky-notes attached, as he explains the workings of the NCB Agile Lab on Wednesday, October 25, 2017.
Marketing Manager for NCB Agile Lab, Sade Powell, explains the agile process that guides the unit as team members work in the background, on Wednesday, October 25, 2017.

Digital product delivery at the NCB Financial Group is being pursued at hyper-speed, by the company's own estimation, with new cross-functional teams at work in a specialist information technology unit, called the Agile Lab.

At the helm within the ever changing working space at the lab - which is configured for comfort, replete with couches, bean bags and sticky pad-adorned kanban boards or white boards used to track the planning process - is 36-year-old John-Matthew Sinclair, who is now five months into the job as programmer and tasked with building the Agile team.

"We are under construction," Sinclair said last Wednesday on a tour of the facility by Gleaner Business.

Agile Lab was recently allotted its operating space. It has four teams, and at the helm of each is a scrum master, who leads the cycle of product development, called a sprint. The cycle is weekly.

In this new department, built on the philosophy of agility, dozens of professionals from multiple disciplines interface with traditional coders and data scientists or software developers to produce services which make the lives of consumers more "delightful", as the banking group puts it.

NCB Financial said the lab represented a significant portion of its spend on infor-mation technology. This is expected to accelerate transformation, and shorten NCB's product development cycle from three years to less than six months.

The NCB Agile Lab opened in April. Its first deliverable, digital online savings accounts, happened four months later. Digital account opening is now being piloted in three branches for customers with driver's licences and voter ID. Full roll out is expected in 2018.

Agility as a tenet of IT services emerged from a manifesto developed by 12 tech specialists following a summit in Canada a decade ago.

NCB's agile process, Sinclair says, aims to solve problems that are a source of stress or inconvenience to customers.

At the start, "we had to address a 'pain point', which most of our customers are facing. We realised that opening an account was their biggest pain point," Sinclair said.

"We have videos and evidence showing that it took up to four hours, which is half of anyone's workday. Now we are looking at maximum 20 minutes. For existing customers, we have it down to five minutes. From setting up the lab, we delivered our first product in about 16 weeks. Typically, it would take us about a year." He said.

NCB sought customer feedback at all stages of product development, whereas under the traditional approach, feedback would have been sought after the product had been developed.

Agile Labs is now tackling the loan application process, starting with unsecured credit. The bank is attaching alphanumeric codes to various preapproved facilities. These codes will be provided to select NCB customers to book a loan at any time.

"Now you no longer have to come into the branch to get this money. You can do it online and have the money disbursed to your account," Sinclair said. The product will be launched in November.

Eventually, customers will be allowed to customise their loans, as well. "So, in digital lending, even while you are preapproved for a certain amount, you are provided a toggle where you can adjust the amount that you want and you can also adjust the tenure for the loan," the programmer said.

"We are very transparent with the product, so you can see all the fees that apply with each adjustment."

Four the past four years, NCB has been investing heavily in customer convenience, through technology upgrades and banking halls that allow 'banking on the go'.

Since that time, the banking group has poured substantial investments into its digital transformation projects, but was not prepared to disclose the precise expenditures. NCB Financial began ramping up its capex on computer software in 2014, and has spent $3.36 billion in that area alone in the past three years; while for the first nine months of this year, ending June 2017, it has already expended another $1.46 billion.

The Agile teams, who are the most recent manifestation of those efforts, are also working on other account types of which there are nearly 20, as well as mobile apps, and other initiatives.

NCB is Jamaica's largest and most profitable banking group, but it is operating in a space that added two new players this year, giving the market more choice.

"We as a company are becoming customer-obsessed. We are in a very competitive space," said Sinclair. "The barrier to entry is very low. And so we now have to focus on what is important. So when we are developing products and services, we have to make sure we put the customer first."

Before Agile Lab was established, Marketing Manager Sade Powell said a business unit such as the NCB Card Centre would outline the product design and send their requirements to the bank's information technology department, which would then review it.

"The process was very siloed," she said. But "with Agile, what we have now are cross-functional teams. There is an empowered business representative sitting in each lab, testers, developers, and a scrum master. The entire team is colocated and working on product from start to finish, from the discovery phase, where we talk to customers, to execution."

Part of the scrum master's job is to clear roadblocks, ensuring that the process operates smoothly from design to execution.

The Agile team comprises different skills set, including coders and security analysts, but Powell said the lab does not have a full complement of human resources all the time, which means it sometimes outsources tasks or services.

However: "They have to be located in this space, else it's not Agile," she said.

The lab has around 50 coders, some of whom are outsourced resources working in-lab. It also has 30 product developers, but expects to grow those numbers to 60.

The NCB unit is working on automating back-end processes and "finding out what journeys the customers would like to take to get to the end point and then making an easy route for those", Sinclair said.

For example, with the online account opening solution, customers can simply upload a photo of their national ID. NCB Agile would then pull the information from it to fill out their application or, as Powell puts it, to "populate" the fields.

"The customer just has to approve or make changes as needed. But they do not to have to manually enter all the fields," she said.

NCB Financial expects to reap savings from the ongoing and expanding digitalisation of banking services, and customers in turn are expected to be levied with fewer fees as a result.

Fees and commissions are a $12 billion to $13 billion enterprise for the banking group, but it has justified those charges in the past as the cost of service delivery.

"High fees are because of human interaction," said Sinclair. "When we on-board customers digitally, the idea is that we should be able to re-evaluate and look at where we can get cost reductions for customer fees," he said.