Where Work Comes To Play

The Middle East head office of Synechron, the largest pure-play technology consulting and outsourcing provider for financial services recently became host to the Synechron Digital Innovation Center. This one-of-a-kind corporate retreat is where ideas are gained, shared, and encouraged. The bright yellow-tinted walls of SDIC cater to banking and smart government in a space that features software that helps pick the right card for you based on age and interests, and a real-time social media wall among other attractions. David Horton, Head of Innovation, and Vimal Sethi, Managing Director discuss their plans for the center at present and in the future.


What is the purpose of a digital innovation center? What inspired its creation?

David Horton: The idea behind creating a digital innovation center was that when clients really want to hear about new technologies and innovation, rather than just seeing how it works on a PowerPoint presentation, they could actually see and experience how it might be done in the real world. I liken it to how Uber is about using your mobile phone to get a taxi, but it’s only until you use Uber that you know how it works and what the end-to-end journey looks like.

Vimal Sethi: And with all tremendous disruption that is happening in financial services, the timing of the center’s launch is perfect. We have two or three customers coming in every day now; sometimes they want to invest in something, sometimes they want to purchase something, or sometimes they want to create new roles in their organizations, but they don’t really know how. That’s where we come in.


What sectors benefit the most from this approach and in what way?

VS: Our heritage lies in financial services, so we have a stronghold there. However, we’re seeing a lot interest from public services, we have government organizations here on a weekly basis, trying to follow the lead that’s been set by His Highness around building a smart city and having services available on mobile devices through applications. So really it’s not for one specific industry, it’s mainly for industries that are trying to adapt to digital as a way forward.


The SDIC is for the MENA region only?

VS: Actually, it’s the first of many from Synechron, who decided to build it in Dubai because of the market’s unique situation. We have over 50 banks competing for the same customer base and they have to differentiate. With the leadership from the UAE government to go digital, it’s the perfect place to start. We actually have clients flying over from around the world coming here to spend time at SDIC. We already have four more innovation centers in process London, Amsterdam, the US, and India.


Innovation isn’t really something that can be taught so how should participants prepare before they arrive at your center?

DH: There’s not really any prep for coming to the center, the reason why you come here is to get inspired with new ideas. So the methodology that we approach this with is that we take the latest technologies and implement them in our innovation center through used cases and prototypes, so when our clients actually see those, they will first think how the technology is directly applicable to them and that they need it, but then it would also provoke a thought about an alternative thing that’s been on their mind and hence they would partner with us in building something new. So it’s also about inspiration that would lead to innovation.


Do you think there will be inevitable comparison and maybe competition with brands like Apple?

DH: Places like Apple are much more consumer-focused; we’re more of a B2B type of center. We’re trying to help banks, financial institutions, and government entities reimagine their services so that they can meet the needs of the new native digital consumer. It’s about partnering with them to make a new business model.

VS:  Yeah, there’s a lot more collaboration that happens in our center than in an Apple store. There, you go get something fixed or listen to someone speak. Here, we get into the details of our clients’ businesses and brainstorm. It’s really powerful.


So while you’re still B2B, would consider a consumer-centric approach in the future?

DH: We certainly engage with consumers because you can’t understand their needs without that, but I don’t see in the foreseeable future that we’ll be the type of company that sells our services to consumers.


Do you think more and more businesses today are realizing the importance of investing in technology? What more can they do?

DH: They are absolutely realizing that. Look the impact of Airbnb and Uber. There’s now an element of fear. Companies feel that if they don’t invest in becoming more digital, their business model will be rendered irrelevant. But a lot of them are also recognizing that if they go digital in the right way, they will open up new revenue streams and opportunities that help them tap into the millennial segment of the market.

VS: Consumers today are choosing who to bank with based on their mobile banking experience. I made my first-ever account with Barclay’s in London, and I’m still with them because I feel a sense of loyalty. But nowadays, people choose based on the experience a bank can provide and they’re happy to switch banks every year if they have to. So in terms of what more they can do, I think banks really have to invest in digital and stay on the curb with young consumers otherwise they will lose customers.


When it comes to the digital sphere, what are some of the most common challenges faced by companies in the Middle East?

VS: It’s combining the understanding of their business with technology, not simply knowing just what the technology can do. In our work here, we try to apply technology to their scenario, helping them understand its function from their end as well as the customer’s.

DH: There’s a distinct lack of companies that are able to do digital transformations. There are many who try to sell it but when you look at it, real transformation involves three key elements. One is envisioning and mapping a strategy. After that you need a design company that can graphically produce something that makes the user experience attractive. The last bit is hardcore technology skills, which can take that vision and turn it into a workable product. There are very few companies that have a combination of all three.


Speaking of challenges, what were some of your challenges while setting up SDIC that other tech entrepreneurs could learn from?

DH: In doing something so pioneering, we wanted to ensure that it got the right amount of visibility. We thought wanted to build an innovation center to inspire our clients but if they didn’t know we existed, then there’s no point. So for us the biggest challenge was getting the message out there and spreading the word. Thankfully today we longer have that issue.


Do you think, and be fully honest, that Banking & Finance can go fully digital in the near future?

VS: I would say probably not. If I want to make a really big decision like buying a house, I really want to look someone in the eye and have a conversation while getting advice. Digital can go very far, even further than where we are today, but I think that personal connections are still important.

DH: I say yes, it can go fully digital! However, I think it won’t be in the near future but a more distant one. When technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality become mainstream, it will happen. But that would be in a good 20-30 years maybe.




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