Driving change in trying times

In the face of a global pandemic, financial services organizations developed an impressive array of innovative, customer-centric solutions that are making products and services easier to use, more accessible and exceptionally relevant to customers’ financial lives. For proof, Exhibit A is The 2020 BAI Global Innovation Awards.

The hundreds of Global Innovation Awards submissions reflect consumers’ state of mind as well as their environment, with the best work being well-attuned to the devastation and disruption wrought by COVID-19. One of the most interesting outcomes of the pandemic was skyrocketing digital adoption by financial services customers, which reflected the sense of urgency to change the way they use technology and other resources.

Originality was merely the price of admission in this year’s contest, which marks the 10th year BAI has celebrated innovation. The entries with relevance and measurable impact broke through with our Innovation Circle, an esteemed panel of global financial services innovation leaders with whom I was fortunate to have been able to collaborate to select the top innovations from around the world.

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One of the biggest differences from previous years is the way global financial services organizations are approaching innovation, including how they establish technology priorities for positive impact on the customer. But the story isn’t just about technology. Financial services organizations are getting better by the year at innovating to achieve goals that include frictionless customer journeys that encourage deeper engagement, as well as broader organizational objectives, such as enhanced talent strategy, greater productivity and internal cultural development.

“The pandemic drove a stronger sense of customer centricity in the submissions,” says Jennifer Tescher, president and CEO of the Financial Health Network in Chicago, and one of this year’s judges. “Innovation can be sexy, but it doesn’t have to be in order to create value for customers. 2020 was a year for practical applications given the dire situations of so many people around the globe.”

All of us on the BAI Innovation Circle judging panel applaud and admire the leaders who championed the work we reviewed. We found some of the strongest organizations were those that have built a culture of innovation centered on their commitment to innovation that benefits their customers. That commitment starts at the top, but its maximum impact comes when it permeates all levels of the organization. Executives who understand the economics of innovation measure return in terms of long-term value. This is a perspective that can make all the difference in successful customer-focused innovation.

Leadership sets the tone for innovation by emphasizing its importance in the organization’s culture and in its business practices. Those leaders fortunate enough to have business incubators and innovation hubs ensure that the breakthroughs produced in those laboratories are integrated into lines of business. Failure to advance innovative work beyond the walls of the incubator often sets the organization and its customers behind.

We also have seen how important effective innovation is to talent strategy in financial services companies. The ability to modernize with relevance and purpose is directly tied to an organization’s ability to attract and retain people who are passionate, experienced and capable in leading change. They must attract the strongest diverse candidates in a competitive, fast-evolving environment. Technology is a key ingredient to innovation, but it’s the people that truly make it happen.

Financial services leaders face extraordinary challenges in the year ahead, given continued economic uncertainty and increasing industry consolidation.  Amidst the pandemic, the industry demonstrated that innovation makes a difference – we feel like we’re out on a pretty sturdy limb in predicting that the well-performing financial services companies will not be tempted to back-burner innovation efforts any time soon.

Innovation Circle judge Adrian Li, co-chief executive of The Bank of East Asia, describes innovation as the engine of change for financial services. “It drives our industry forward by addressing customer needs, improving efficiency and opening new avenues for business. That’s why we need to recognize fresh, daring ideas which demonstrate real value.”

We appreciate Jennifer, Adrian and all our judges for identifying the most innovative work being done in financial services from across the globe. Their insights were invaluable.

We are inspired by the high degree of innovation that has emerged during such a uniquely difficult year. The banking industry has done a superb job in making bold decisions about serving their customers and keeping their colleagues safe during COVID-19. Not only did the pandemic not slow innovation that positively impacts customers, it transformed how leadership teams think about innovation and accelerated execution. These teams went farther, faster and more creatively than ever before.

Congratulations to our BAI Global Innovation Award winners who pushed forward when it would have been so much easier to settle for the tried-and-true. We can’t wait to see what our financial services leaders do next.

Debbie Bianucci is president and CEO of BAI.