Tradition and Modernity must be balanced in digitalisation – BOC
By D. P. K. Gunasekera
Never before in our 80 years of existence have we faced the odds we are facing today. The pandemic has, for over an year now, crippled world economies and laid to waste business and commerce. With it has come a sea of changes in the way we look at doing business, i.e. we have begun to see digitalisation with fresh eyes.
For a large part of our history, the Bank of Ceylon (BOC) was a very terrestrial operation. It is only in the last 10 - 20 years that we have forayed into a digitalisation; but today the Bank stands on the threshold of making a quantum leap into cyberspace. Be that as it may, there is a difference in the way we approach this challenge. As a local Bank, we have always been very rooted in our services being personalised. For us, being terrestrial meant being well connected to the development structures of the nation which in turn are connected to government policies. In 1972, when the government of the time passed the agriculture productivity Law, we launched agrarian service centre branches in almost all the villages in the country. Today, those centres form the base of our rural banking network. It is because we operate at grassroots level, that we are proud to be the preferred bankers to the nation.
So, when it comes to the digitalisation of our Bank we cannot and will not compromise on that one thing — our personal touch or the human engagement of our services. Digitalisation can become impersonal given the very nature of the animal. Newly designed programmes and applications are doing a lot to replace what humans have done in the past. All of it is considered good, and we understand the need to embrace this change and development, which is what the bank is doing now. We are placing a lot of emphasis on digitalisation, but at the same time, we are determined that artificial intelligence will not replace the emotional intelligence of BOC.
What do I mean by this? For years our engagement with customers, especially in the rural sector, has been one of empathy. That means, understanding our customers on a one on one basis. Hundreds of our management and staff deal with real life situations and understand the vulnerability of living off the land or engaging in trade that are subject to the vagaries of market situations.
82 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total population live in rural areas, where agriculture is their main stay. Large parts of the country’s poor people depend on rural sector economies and almost half of the rural sector poor are small-scale farmers. Tea smallholders contribute 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's tea production, and smallholder rubber growers cultivate 62 per cent of rubber land. All of them have to be serviced by a bank that can relate to and understand them. Another factor is unemployment of youth, which poses its own challenges, and the reason why we need to encourage entrepreneurship. The list is long, and taking all of this into consideration, we are building hybrid systems that will help us face the challenges of the new world order. This is where digitalisation interfaces with human resources. Not a case of placing one above the other, but where each one will have its due place. Emotional intelligence will stand shoulder to shoulder with artificial intelligence so that we can have the best of both worlds. Our plan is to ensure that tradition and modernity will have equal places going forward.
We will not cast aside traditional engagement with our customers who visit our Bank branches located in the little towns of their rural villages, just to sit with one of our Bank managers for a chat. For decades we have used the knowledge gained from these informal chats to understand the market we operate in. This grassroot local information has helped guide and direct our policies; and it is the emotional intelligence that has formed the backbone of our existence.
From 1961, when the Bank was made into a national institution, we have supported our governments to achieve their goals be it in food security, improving productivity, ensuring sustainable incomes for the rural sector or strengthening trade and commerce.
We have been actively involved in the private sector, as well as small and medium-sized industries related to the agriculture, fisheries, livestock and plantation sectors. BOC has played a pivotal role in helping smallholders increase productivity in a sustainable manner, supporting rural farmers to improve agricultural technologies and off-farm activities and helping to create employment opportunities.
Helping our rural customers connect to markets is another key aspect the bank has concentrated on. We have helped the rural poor develop their value chains, forming public-private-producer partnerships, and mustering inventive financial products that are especially designed to meet their needs. This goes not only for rural agriculture but for both rural and urban heavy and light industries.
Within all these sectors of our engagement, with customers who might be mudalalis, school teachers, government workers, or small scale shop owners, we operate under one guiding principle. We consider each of our customers individually, and always try to tailor our services to their specific needs. Yes, there is some rationale to the way we operate, but while there are parameters, we are never unreasonable.
It is this same thinking that we take into other areas of our expansion — rethinking our traditional engagements with customers. We have set up a think tank that is looking into newer types of business that are emerging; like new start-ups. How do we lend to people who have no collateral but their knowledge? And how do we manage risk, especially since we are well aware that out of 10 start-ups only two may become a success? So emotional intelligence will have to play a role in this process, rather than sole reliance on artificial intelligence to make that decision — to lend or not to lend.
It is with this thinking that we have joined hands with the Federation of Information Technology Industries (FITIS), to support their inaugural Internet Day as platinum sponsor. We believe that such engagements and interactions have to be supported in order to broaden this discussion with all stakeholders. We are very encouraged to see that they have drawn in experts from other countries to be part of this event. The internet is not just one or another thing, it is everything just like banking.
As we traverse this digitalised world we have to find common ground with it and create interfaces that are not only robotic but also human. Yes, we need automation, but if we lose the human touch we cannot operate in a real world.
(D. P. K. Gunasekera is the General Manager of Bank of Ceylon. A career banker who counts over 40 years of professional industry experience, Gunasekera had previously held key positions at BOC including Senior Deputy General Manager (International, Treasury and Investment), Deputy General Manager (Corporate & Offshore Banking), Assistant General Manager (Overseas Branches), plus the role of Assistant General Manager (Corporate Relations) beginning October 2010.
He holds international experience as well, receiving exposure across a wide range of operational aspects at Bank of Ceylon UK Ltd., London, while also undergoing specialised training in foreign exchange trading at both American Express Bank London and Lloyds Bank London.
Gunasekera also functions as the director of several Bank of Ceylon subsidiaries and associate companies.)