Fintech in 2017: Automation Will Rule

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Editor’s note: A longer version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Without a doubt, 2016 was the year "disruption" became tangible. Events like Brexit and the U.S. election brought home the reality we are living in a fast-changing global society where a sense of anti-establishment and rebellion is accelerating change. This shows no sign of stopping in 2017, with new and existing technologies allowing institutions to ultimately offer more unique banking experiences. From my meetings with decision-making executives at the world's leading banks, here are the top five trends dominating their technology investment discussions:


In 2017, several banks will undoubtedly take their first steps toward "conversational commerce," a term coined by Chris Messina of Uber to describe the future of messaging within apps. In 2016, we already saw several leaders like Santander and Bank of America announce their plans for chatbots; however, 2017 is the year when the rebirth of this very old technology will come into its own.

Chatbots are not new. But for the financial industry, chatbots are top of mind when looking to reinvent the customer experience while also cutting down on costs in job roles ripe for automation. In the context of conversational commerce, chatbots are becoming the bridge between consumers and businesses. The technology appears to be a good answer for financial institutions to manage millions of one-to-one conversations with their customers.

In one chat, banks can help someone onboard or even aid a customer with an important financial decision, such as applying for a mortgage. By combining hands-on service with some element of automation —alert notifications and auto-dialers, for example—financial institutions can manage customer relationships a little easier and with a degree of personalization.

Advanced machine learning

While chatbots are the sexy part of banking, the brain behind the bot is what is enabling the disruption of traditional customer service in the financial industry. Artificial intelligence has reached a critical tipping point and will be at the heart of a convergence of technologies like data science, internet of things, optical character recognition, natural language programming and blockchain — all of which will drive structural change in financial services.

When considering the automation opportunities offered through AI, many banks have identified onboarding and know-your-customer processes as the priority area. New advancements in technology now let banks deliver a more frictionless experience by allowing customers to easily upload documents through their mobile camera and extract both the needed data fields and intent of documents to automate the credit decision process rather than have to deal with filling in paperwork. More affordable and extensive processing power, general availability of algorithms through algo "marketplaces" and colossal data sets to feed the algorithms have also combined to unleash a new era of Robotic Process Automation. In 2017, RPA will become a key priority for bank executives looking to do more with less.

Within the broad space of AI and machine learning, wealth management is the likeliest business to be the most adoptive of these technologies in 2017. Throughout the year, expect the industry to launch a range of robo-advisory services — some will have a simple focus on the end-goal and are ideal for individuals who don't care or don't want to learn about the details of investing. For more mature and astute investors, the services of a hybrid robo-adviser service are needed because some financial advisers add tremendous value through the guidance of asset allocation based upon unquantifiable factors, which automated algorithms cannot do. These advisers can give experienced advice about long-term life decisions, such as planning an education fund for children.

Compete with or buy the fintech competition?

Today, many banks are faced with the conundrum of whether to: change their outdated and antiquated legacy business — and do it fast; build and launch a digital bank ultimately aimed at cannibalizing the traditional business; or acquire an established neobank and bolt on a few fintech startups.

In 2017, we will see a trend of all three strategies increasingly take up boardroom conversations. They will also inspire meaningful change within the bank's organizational structure with the continued rise in executive power of the chief digital officer, chief marketing officer and chief data officer. What is becoming abundantly clear is that for banks to succeed in an increasingly digital world, the leadership team needs to be technologists at heart. However, for this to happen, the role of the procurement team will also need reevaluation — a process that could result in new vendor evaluation processes that focus on agility, innovation and time to market, rather than just on vendor consolidation and cost negotiation.

In 2017, we can also expect to see the fall of what were hoped to be future fintech unicorns — as several significant fintech startups will have received more than three to four years of funding. If the market is not conducive to a healthy IPO, or results are not showing the massive potential once envisaged, the funding taps are likely to get turned off. This trend will be no surprise given that for most technology, venture capitalists expect only one in 10 investments to pay off. However, it also means that the fintech startup scene, and associated hype cycle, may get a little dose of reality and start to feel a little deflated in 2017.

The open API bank

As banking services move toward an environment that is fast and agile, runs in the cloud, and expedites the customer acquisition process, many firms will begin to launch their own app marketplaces through open application programming interface modules in 2017.

Over the past 12 months, there has been a consistent uptick in such platform solutions from leading organizations like Citigroup and BBVA. In 2017, banks and insurers will continue to launch open, unified solutions that make it possible to deliver new digital products and services while also increasing channel efficiency and reducing operating costs.

More blockchain

Blockchain solutions will not go mainstream in 2017; however, interest in the technology has garnered significant investment in 2016. According to Greenwich Associates, global financial institutions and technology providers spent more than $1 billion in 2016 on capital markets blockchain.

With the growing investment and enthusiasm has come a frantic need to be one of the herd, leading firms to act quickly or risk being left on the sidelines. This fear of missing out on blockchain is understandable — the stakes are high and the technology is moving quickly.

Ultimately, expect 2017 to be a year of more disruption, more change, and likely, a few fintech casualties.

David Horton is head of innovation at Synechron, a global financial technology consulting firm.

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Technology Artificial intelligence Data and information management APIs Uber