BNY Mellon’s Raj Iyer: How to Embrace Discomfort in the Age of Digital Transformation

Solstice’s Luminaries series is all about getting inside the minds of the individuals who have the greatest impact on the financial services industry. The knowledge and insights they have to share can help empower the rest of us in the industry to learn and grow.

So, without further ado, let’s jump into the third installment of the series with Raj Iyer, a digital platform strategist at BNY Mellon.

I always relish the opportunity to interview someone like Raj. His perspective goes beyond just individual digital products — instead, he’s more focused on the ecosystem those products live in.

As the industry moves away from siloed business units and digital products, it’s refreshing to hear Raj talk about the changes needed to transform from product-centric ways of working to a customer-centric mindset.

At the end of our talk, I realized Raj brought to surface one of our most fundamental beliefs at Solstice: the digital transformation journey takes time, and it’s all about making people feel comfortable with change and accepting of failures — because at the end of the day, that’s where real growth, learning, and transformation can happen.

 

JARED JOHNSON: Technology is moving faster than it ever has before. In fact, I’ve heard it phrased as, “Technology is never going to advance again as slowly as it is today.” From a digital strategy perspective, how do you tell the difference between something that’s just a technology fad and something that’s the beginning of a long-term shift? How are you separating the signals from the noise?

RAJ IYER: A lot of times we're still learning about the technology. When I look at a broader time horizon, there's definitely an acceleration in technology now. It's more a part of people's lives, but [what’s important is] where technology can impact the user of the technology. So, to me, the noise is typically around where it's difficult to articulate the real benefits. Once it starts to be clear how users will either gain from it or be attracted to it, it starts being a signal as opposed to noise. Sometimes that takes iterations, sometimes that takes working through and understanding how technology is moving and evolving. 

Once it starts to be clear how users will either gain from it or be attracted to it, it starts being a signal as opposed to noise.

JJ: That’s an interesting point — something becoming a mainstay once you see the real benefit to users and users are attracted to it. Is it just being talked about at tech conferences or are we actually seeing the general population start to become more aware of it?

RI: Sometimes technologies aren't positioned initially to the right user community or function — it's not necessarily the fault of the technology. But, you have to find the right overlaps and there's no clear path to it. There's no clear path to say whichever technology you can point to has been successful and say that there was an absolute straight line to get to the success. Usually it requires people trying things, but it can also take a little creativity to think about how to apply the technology to real world problems.

JJ: Right. Is the technology actually solving a problem or is it just a shiny object?

RI: When it's theoretically solving a problem as opposed to an articulated value, it's noise. It doesn't mean it's bad, it just means it's at a different part of the cycle. And it's at a part of the cycle where it could not have long lasting power. You still have to look at it because it may end up becoming “signal” [as opposed to just “noise”]. But it's when you're able to understand how it can be implemented in a way that can show value to a user that it gets exciting.

 

JJ: You work in a large institution, BNY Mellon, where you've got multiple business units and each unit has their own incentives. Are you seeing a need for more collaboration across units?

RI: It's a massive driver of the whole digital discussion going on right now. [Let’s look] at how we got here from an organizational perspective. If you go back [a few] years, platforms developed as their own ecosystems, so companies had many platforms and each one had to do everything required to support [itself] — including storing its own data, having onboarding [and] support processes. Effectively, each platform ended up being the spine of the business that it was around and it was fine because that was due to the limitations of the time.

Right now companies are looking around saying, we have these 20 platforms and each of them has a lot of commonality, each of them stores data, each of them might require some type of predictive analytics, etc. Now what's driving the digital discussion is people looking across what used to be a very self-contained ecosystem and seeing the commonality. That's one of the drivers — it's that commonality that people look at and say wow, we do the same thing over and over again in each platform. Isn't there a different way to look at it? That's a core building block of the current discussion. Another building block is, you can look across these and say, what kind of new things could we look at if we actually were able to work collaboratively together? 

 

JJ: Has there been anything you've seen successful at getting folks onboard with more cross-business-unit collaboration?

RI: In general, you definitely have to have a vision that you're going towards. So if people don't have a vision it's very hard to understand and develop a program around [this].

Realistically, two other things have to happen. One, there has to be senior level engagement. Leadership of the company has to be very engaged in the discussion. It can't happen only bottoms up. The vision can come from the people in the business lines driving the business. But I think there has to be buy in and real push from the leadership of the company. Two, there has to be relatively tangible benefits in a reasonable time frame.

You need vision, you need buy in at a senior level to the vision, and you need tangible results of some sort within a reasonable time frame. I don't want to necessarily define "reasonable timeframe," but it's less than five years, I think. It's difficult for projects to maintain momentum, however much buy in there is, past a couple of years if there aren't real deliverables and milestones.

 

JJ: What are you seeing companies get wrong when it comes to digital transformation?

RI: Digital transformation is a different way of looking at things or a part of transforming the way a company operates is a different way of looking at things. One of the things that companies have been unwilling to do sometimes is try to accomplish what they see as the benefits from digital without changes in culture or changes in mindset or process. Trying to shoehorn in a digital discussion, digital meaning maybe looking at technology maybe being able to try things, being able to learn, doesn't necessarily fit easily into the cycles of planning and execution the companies are used to. It's a mindset change. It's a mindset change to move quickly and be very client focused. Those are things that traditional company cultures have a harder time with. 

JJ: It's that culture piece of digital transformation that seems to be a big sticking point. I've heard stories of banks on their digital transformation journey that changed their dress code for their tech teams. People no longer have to wear ties, but they still carry around a tie in their pocket, because they think, “If management comes in, do I still need to have a tie?” So it’s that culture piece that’s so hard to change. It’s been said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” What tactics have you seen be particularly successful when trying to transform a company’s culture to either be more customer centric or optimized for a digital — more agile, fail fast — mentality?

RI: Every legacy company I know is in the process, and senior level buy in as well as a mandate saying to do this helps a lot. I’ll use your example. At what point does a person stop carrying a tie around just in case? Because they're comfortable with the idea that this is the way the world is now. It's not going to suddenly snap back and I'm not going to be in a meeting where I'm the only guy without a tie. They feel comfortable that we've moved into a new world and that's kind of a superficial example but I think that there's a time element to that.

At what point does a person stop carrying a tie around just in case? Because they're comfortable with the idea that this is the way the world is now.

One of the things that has been nice for the legacy companies is there's more interaction with the pure tech companies nowadays than there used to be. There was always interaction, but there's an interaction where people are able to feel comfortable actually working with and seeing companies that act very differently. It's a matter of putting policies and incentives in place and throughout the company and making people [feel] comfortable [working in] a different way. But there's a time element there, too. I wish I had the ultimate answer to that. That's the million dollar question.

JJ: Yeah, I think that's a totally fair and realistic answer. It's going to take time. If this were easy to do everyone would be further along in the journey than they are.

RI: I wouldn't underestimate the importance of having a vision and sticking with it for five years or however long it takes to say, “We're getting rid of our legacy, we're moving to a different way of working, and pulling out the safety net, pulling out the you can always lean back on the old process.” The vision is a big push. It's saying this is how we want to be, but it's difficult to build that vision because there are a lot of reasons why the legacy systems exist.

The vision is a big push. It's saying this is how we want to be, but it's difficult to build that vision because there are a lot of reasons why the legacy systems exist.

 

JJ: As a digital strategist, is there anything that keeps you up at night as it pertains to the world of digital strategy? Is there anything that you spend more cycles on that gives you pause or makes you worry?

RI: People learn the wrong lessons from things that fail and maybe things that succeed. This transformation process is a learning process. It's a learning process within the company as to what can work, what can't work.

What keeps me up at night is that there are very good and potentially creative, long lasting, good solutions to things or platforms, foundations to be built, but that sometimes the first, second, or third doesn’t necessarily work. People sometimes focus too much on the 20 percent [of things] that is a problem, and then these great solutions never see the light of day.

Also, that we don't match correctly the capabilities to the problems. And when we don't do that because we don't learn from what we're doing, we end up with less good solutions or we end up with situations that don't work well. There is a lot of good, creative thinking, a lot of good, creative tech people, and sometimes we just don’t know how to match them to the solution. It takes some trial and error to get there.

You have to have patience to do it. So the lack of patience, the lack of learning, and maybe I worry a little bit about overthinking. Sometimes you just have to act and then deal with it and correct yourself.

Sometimes you just have to act and then deal with it and correct yourself.

JJ: I see all the time that people confuse complexity with strategy. Sometimes the more complicated and the more effort that went into something isn’t necessarily the better or more thorough answer. A lot of times getting back to basics is the best strategy.

RI: It's actually much more difficult to simplify something than it is to over complicate it. If you look at things that are widely used today, like social media, the ideas have been around for a long time, for decades. It takes applying what’s been done before. If you look at any of the large tech companies, very few of them invented what they’re doing. They took what has been working somewhere in a certain way, applied a slightly different way of thinking, built on what someone else was doing, and really focused on the user and what will work for the user. If they had taken the first dozen attempts at whatever this was, like social media, and stopped because someone thought it wasn’t going to work, we’d have a lot less going on. Social media may be a bad example, because it’s as hated as much as it’s loved, but it’s been very successful.

JJ: No, I think that's an interesting example. You saw it in the early versions of the internet. You look at chat rooms and forums, which really all evolved into social media because there were so many iterations and people tried it in many different ways.

RI: Yeah, you turn it on its head a little bit, right? Those early versions that were focused on people who were maybe more technically oriented to begin with. So someone started saying what if we could apply this to people who are not techies. I don't exactly know how it started but without those foundations, you could argue that the basic terminology wouldn't be there. So, that's how things evolve. Things evolve by slight, small paradigm shifts. It’s not a lightning bolt — you just have to keep chipping away at it.

Things evolve by slight, small paradigm shifts. It’s not a lightning bolt — you just have to keep chipping away at it.

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