Rewiring Citi for the digital age

Here is a brief excerpt from an interview of Don Callahan for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. Citigroup’s Head of Operations and Technology describes the bank’s efforts to accelerate its digital transition, as well as the importance of having the right talent and agility to pull it off.

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Citi’s legendary chairman Walter Wriston noted years ago that information about money has become almost as important as money itself. The bank’s Head of Operations and Technology, Don Callahan, believes that today, in the digital age, Wriston would surely drop the qualifier to his famous observation, noting: “Information simply is as important as money.”

This is apparent as Callahan surveys the 21st-century banking terrain: digital competitors are massing on every front—from fintech start-ups to new divisions of global institutions—while the speed of every banking process and customer interaction accelerates daily. All this change requires a focus on agility, Callahan says, which in turn demands a cultural rewiring.

At the helm of Citi’s digital transformation, Callahan is helping drive new thinking across the bank. He points to Citi’s digital lab for start-up innovations, powerful new apps for customer smartphones, and, internally, a push to expand capabilities across cloud computing and big data and analytics that enable automation and machine learning. In an interview with McKinsey’s James Kaplan and Asheet Mehta, Callahan describes what it takes to mobilize digital change at one of the world’s leading financial institutions.

The Quarterly: What are the top-of-mind risks for you as you continue Citi’s transition to a digital bank?

Don Callahan: I think the biggest risk for the industry is whether it will be able to move fast enough. Are we going be able to think and execute swiftly? A lot of people talk about being agile. Agility is a lot more than how our developers approach an issue. “Agile” now is a group of subject-matter experts coming together from each walk of life—someone who is a true developer collaborating with someone who is a product manager who knows how to listen to the customer or the client. And then the real test is whether they take that, put it together as an idea, and bring that story to life. In addition, if it is not right, can they move on and come up with the next version fast enough?

So, give us an example of agility at work.

An example right now is work that Stephen Bird, CEO of Global Consumer Banking, is leading. We know we have to be mobile first, and we are doing a lot there. In order to be all-in on mobile, we have set up a “lean team” in our Long Island City office, with about 100 people who are operating in a very agile way.

It doesn’t operate like a traditional bank; it is much more like a creative team. They are incorporating feedback, putting up designs on a wall, and testing directly with customers. They are experimenting and coding. I’m seeing the speed, the curiosity, and the execution at levels I’ve never seen before.

And this is helping you step up the pace?

Yes. On the consumer-banking side, one of the most exciting projects for us was how fast we were able to come up with a product offering for the Apple Watch. I received a phone call on the day IBM and Apple made the announcement that they were going to work together. And someone from our consumer business asked me if we could be the first financial-services app on the Apple Watch. We worked with a senior team at Apple, with IBM, and at Citi to develop the first banking app for the watch. We did it all in 120 days.

If you think about the opportunity to create digital financial services—you are a 204-year-old bank with all the resources and capabilities that implies. In some cases, you may be competing against much newer, smaller, nimbler start-ups. What does that imply?

The competition has changed. It’s not just the peer bank down the road or across the ocean. Today, it can be a start-up in Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley. We welcome that kind of competition. It makes us stronger and that much faster. I also think there is plenty we can learn from them, and there are opportunities for us to all work together.

The common denominator most start-ups have, including ones I have had the chance to visit, is they truly have a blank slate. Because of that, they are able to take the art of the possible and bring it swiftly to market. For some companies, that is going to require fresh thinking, including welcoming change and embracing new ideas.

In terms of digital transformation, how do you think the culture and the skills of the IT organization at Citi will evolve over the course of the next five years?

As technology changes, we are going to have to adapt accordingly. Over the last five years, we have continued to enhance our capabilities at Citi. We have changed all of our significant platforms globally, as well as our core hardware and architecture. In the process, we have also been able to achieve dramatic savings. As a result, we have state-of-the-art technology across Citi that is running at an optimum cost structure.

Looking forward to the next five years, we are going to have to continue to build upon those efforts. For example, we are going to have to become very comfortable embracing the cloud, our private cloud, our multitenant cloud, and our public cloud. We must get comfortable with the idea of true automation—robotics, machine to machine, cognitive, and so much more.

The question becomes how do you actually apply that within Citi? So, the culture and the curiosity of our tech team and our operations team will need to look at opportunities for change.

I will give you an example that I find particularly important. As we looked at accounts payable, we realized it is repeatable work and fairly predictable. That is a perfect situation to place a “bot” on it. This enables people who are doing those jobs, whether it is in Budapest, Tampa, or Costa Rica, to perform functions that are even more valuable, deliver more results, and provide better career-growth opportunities.

The last part of the culture I think we need to change is embracing data throughout the industry. Data is truly the lifeblood of an organization, in my mind. We are seeing the value being created for our clients and our customers by being able to help them at all stages. I believe big data is absolutely going to be an area in which there will be more focus and opportunity to drive value for clients. Of course, we will be careful to do all of this in a way that is secure and privacy protective.

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To read and/or watch the complete interview, here is a direct link.

Don Callahan is Head of Operations and Technology at Citiroup. This interview was conducted by James Kaplan, a partner in McKinsey’s New York office, and Asheet Mehta, a senior partner in the New York office.

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