Integrate, analyze, understand big data

Absa's IT pros build bridge between IT and business

Even when he was a computer scientist working in academia, Dev Govender knew that IT should do a better job of selling to business. "They are worlds apart and it's important to bring the two together," he says. "If you cannot talk the same language, it's always going to be an uphill battle."

So he went on to earn a master's degree in business leadership, and now he is Head of Enterprise Management at Absa Bank, part of the Barclays Group and a large financial services firm in Africa.

Focus on what you're solving and explain the costs of not solving it: competitive position, compliance, anti-money laundering … all of the biggest challenges can be solved with analytics.

Dev Govender
Head of Enterprise Management

Today, Govender manages Absa's data warehouse, which contains 144 billion records relating to its 11.8 million customers and 16 million accounts. Those records measure a whopping 165 terabytes – and growing. Moreover, Absa has 500 core business applications in production, and Govender's team manages 1,800 system interfaces into the data warehouse. And today's compliance legislation requires banks to hold onto data for longer and longer.

"Wow! Impressive numbers." That's what Govender hears from IT professionals. "So what?" That's what their bosses say. "Many a business leader can see only the mounting costs involved in storing so much useless data and maintaining so many apps," Govender explains. So how do you bring about a meeting of the minds? To Govender, the answer is that IT must be able to show business the gold in its data.

Facing the facts

Shock tactics can move things forward. "To help someone overcome harmful behavior or an addiction, you must first force him to confront the truth," Govender says. "Likewise, I needed to get the bank to acknowledge that it had a problem with data."

If the bank could control its problem, it would reduce costs and see value. If not, it would cease to be competitive; its future would be in doubt. To drive the point home, Govender listed four of the bank's biggest strategic challenges and demonstrated how information management could solve them and deliver benefits

  • Achieve sustainable growth in targeted markets to increase overall sales revenue.
  • Optimize the balance sheet and proactively manage risk to reduce the number of financial write-offs and ensure greater compliance.
  • Streamline customer on-boarding with a seamless customer experience.
  • Create a customer-centric organization with an integrated view of the customer, regardless of whether that customer was approaching the bank as a card user, a borrower, or an investor – vital to making new sales at a minimum cost.

"If a bank wants to solve these problems, it will be forced to acknowledge that its data is underutilized, because that's where all the answers are," says Govender. "Until you win this battle, it is no use fighting the others because you are predestined to lose."

No quick fix

Having built a strong case that made business sense, Govender and his team outlined a strategy that persuaded Absa's leadership to invest in what he calls an "analytical journey."

"They understood it would be a long and demanding effort. And although they knew it was unavoidable, they had no doubt it was worth it," he says.

The first step of the journey was to elevate ABSA's use of SAS from a tactical tool to a strategic analytical platform, supported by an advanced analytics team, staffed by top talent.

"We did due diligence and came to the conclusion that SAS was the way to generate maximum value," Govender says. "What's more, data visualization in SAS makes it much easier to demonstrate value, given that we are dealing with mind-boggling numbers."

Absa established an analytical innovation team and initiated a series of pilot projects that could demonstrate quick wins. Projects included: credit risk management, credit scoring, risk management, lead generation for cross-sell/up-sell and text mining of social media for remarkable insight into what makes different customer segments tick.

"By understanding the customers, we can directly design products that suit their needs instead of designing umpteen products and then testing them on the market," says Govender. "In test up-sell projects, we were soon demonstrating uptakes of 60 percent or more."

Talk like an executive

"In the past we had lots of initiatives, but they did not get far because we were all working in isolation," Govender says. "In order to maximize the value of the information asset, the business units had to take an enterprise view.

"That's why executive sponsorship is so important. With executive sponsorship, you can set up a data stewardship organization, get the resources needed to fix data quality and ensure a single version of the truth."
But, Govender cautions, the trick to winning executive support is giving them a reason to care.

"OK, you can show your executive leadership the technology landscape – briefly," he advises. "It'll scare them, so they will be relieved when you move on to the business case. Then focus on what you're solving and explain the costs of not solving it: competitive position, compliance, anti-money laundering … all of the biggest challenges can be solved with analytics. Banking is all about high risk, high reward; so it's imperative to talk in those terms."


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  • Financial gains through smarter marketing and risk strategies.
  • More effective compliance and anti-money laundering efforts.
  • Uptakes of 60% in customer up-sell test projects.

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