The secret life of data: how Data & Analytics is transforming our business

One of the biggest questions for the banking industry in a low interest rate environment, is how to gain a competitive edge. With the Bank of England base rate having been at historic lows since 2009, that question has been more pertinent than ever.

For RBS and our customer brands, the answer has been to focus on serving our customers better. That means things like simplifying our products and being easier to do business with. It also means the desire to return banking to how it felt several decades ago, when customers could rely on their bank to know them, and to help them through each stage of their financial lives. But the industry has changed markedly since those days – how do you achieve that when your customers numbers are in the millions?

The answer, it turns out, comes in the one thing a bank produces in droves: data.

Embarking on a journey

Around two years ago, we brought together a number of different teams from across our business into a new Data & Analytics function. All of them were producing MI and looking at data. All had their own ways of working and their own focusses. And all of them were reflecting our business, rather than driving it. Consolidating them meant a chance to build a better picture of how our business was performing using a common infrastructure, and to make better use of that data to enhance decision making, push efficiency, and improve our customers’ experience.

Paul Hollands is the Head of Data & Analytics for our Commercial & Private Banking business, which serves clients from corporates and SMEs to wealthy individuals. Reflecting on how far we’ve come, he tells me, “we’re about two years into a five year journey to get to where we want to be, which is from something which basically didn’t exist, to a fundamental part of the business. The aim for the first year was quite simple: getting the right structure in place and applying the right processes, then getting our business stakeholders to think about data and analytics in the right way – that we’re not just here to give them data, but to provide the richness behind the data. The next step has been all about delivering on that promise, and helping them to understand their clients better and have better conversations.”

If the idea that data can guide conversations seems at all far-fetched, you have some idea of the challenge Paul is referring to when he talks about getting people to “think about data and analytics the right way.” Perhaps that’s because people tend to focus on the data part and to forget about how powerful the analytics are. People from across our Data & Analytics teams have spent a great deal of time improving the quality of the data we hold, while also building new data by, for example, spending time with our private banking relationship managers to understand how they prepare for client meetings, and how clients react to different parts of the conversation. With enough data in place, they were able to determine what made the best-performing relationship managers successful. “We’re really helping to define the Private Banking strategy,” Paul tells me. “That touches on not only how we make sure we’re having the right conversations, but also on driving capital efficiency.”

And the result? “We’ve had great feedback from clients on the quality and timing of the interventions. Clients feel like we understand them, and they feel a closer connection to the business.”

Unravelling the puzzle

I also spoke to Tim Potter, an Analytics Manager in Paul’s world, to find out a bit more about how they go about engaging with stakeholders when they’re asked to look at a problem. “The idea of what analytics can do is still new to a lot of our stakeholders. Often they’re not sure what we can do for them, so they might come to us with a request for data, or with a set idea of what the problem is before we’ve had the chance to really investigate.”

It’s often Tim’s job to peel back the layers of the problem they start with, and work out what’s really going on. “We can’t do anything without building relationships and understanding, so we’ll ask questions and probe to get deeper into the issue. That can be really interesting in itself, and it helps us to earn trust because we often find that the problem is quite different to how it appeared at first. Once we’ve agreed a general direction to take things in, we take the work away and look at it in detail, before bringing back our conclusions in terms that are easily understood.”

While their work draws heavily on programming and modelling talent, in many ways the process of determining the real problem – and finding the solution within the data – is where the real skill lies. “Creativity, intuition and an open mind are all hugely important in what we do. We often find that a project changes its course the more detail we uncover, so it’s important to have the confidence to dive into a problem without knowing exactly where it’ll end up, while also being able to recognise when it’s time to take a different approach. I sometimes explain it by saying that it’s similar to being on a golf course: you might not be able to see the hole when you tee-off, but you’ll probably know where to send your first shot. Then you keep revising your plan for subsequent shots based upon where the ball lands each time.”

 

The next stage

Whenever a business embarks on a wholesale change in the way it works, it takes time to get everyone pulling in the same direction – especially when that business is as large as RBS. Over the last two years, the people in Data & Analytics have put enormous work into reforming our infrastructure, standardising the quality of our data, and proving that they can make a difference where it matters: with our customers. But the journey isn’t over. “We’ve done most of the hardest bit,” as Paul puts it, “and now we’ve got more hard work coming up. But it’s something the business are taking very seriously. They’re making a real investment in financial terms, but also in trust terms.”

That commitment means that, even if the heavy lifting isn’t quite finished, now is an excellent time to join. As Tim explains, “the bank have invested money in building our data warehouse out, and we have a server with the same sort of technology that leading tech companies are using. It gives us ‘Big Data’ capability and makes our data a lot easier to work with. It means we have the infrastructure to start looking at unstructured data – like analysing recorded conversations with customers – and use it to look a level deeper and understand our customers in new ways.”

The hunt for new talent

Data & Analytics has been firmly established as what Paul calls “part of the solution”: a key pillar in reaching our strategic goal to be recognised as the UK’s number one bank for customer service, trust and advocacy. Now the investment we’ve made in infrastructure is being matched by investment in new people, with multiple opportunities at analyst level – and some managerial – either available now, or due to come online shortly. If you want to be challenged and to make an impact, they’re opportunities which are well worth taking advantage of.

“At the career stage where most of our analysts and managers are, you rarely get a chance to really influence the shape and strategy of the business the way they do here,” Paul tells me. And Tim’s take on the department’s unique selling point backs this promise up. “The exposure we get here is high. For the most part we work with key stakeholders, and the expectation is that everyone presents their own findings to whomever ultimately asked for it. You have support, but the understanding is that it’s your work, so you should be the one who presents it.”

“People are our strongest asset. We’re a people business first and a technical business second, and we absolutely invest in that.”

Paul Hollands – Head of Data & Analytics, Commercial & Private Banking

So what do you need to take full advantage of the opportunities the department offers? Programming and modelling skills are certainly welcome – SAS and SQL are in daily use today, and Hadoop will come into play as the department starts to take advantage of its ‘Big Data’ capabilities. But while a good analyst can code, a coder doesn’t always make a good analyst. “We have a clear need for mathematical people” confirms Paul, “but we really need people who can talk to the business and find out what their problems are, then use data to answer it. People who have a consulting mindset and can get to the bottom of a problem, rather than assume a model can do the work.”

Tim – who came from a non-coding banking background before joining Data & Analytics two years ago – agrees. “A passion for problem solving it is the real key. Banking knowledge can be taught, programming can be taught, it’s the mindset that matters.”

If you’re looking for challenging work and a business that will trust your talent, you should give real thought to getting on board for the next steps of the journey. Talking about the opportunities for both new joiners and old hands, Paul says, “we’re spending more on training next year than we’ve ever done before, making sure people have the support and education they need. We’re hugely committed in terms of softer skills, we want them to project manage and present effectively. People are our strongest asset. We’re a people business first and a technical business second, and we absolutely invest in that.”

For people with the curiosity, creativity and discipline to find innovative ways to use data to attack business problems, there will be few more rewarding places in the industry to develop a career over the next few years.

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