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Essential resources for banking executives:Enter ‘Banking Reinvented’

Developing a digital transformation strategy: three viable options

Big bang replacement. The greenfield approach. Progressive modernization. All three are viable options, but which one is right for you?

by Backbase


When it comes to digital transformation, it’s no longer a question of “if” — it’s a question of “how.”

How do I create business value for my bank? How do I deliver the project on time and on budget? How do I best use our resources to make the biggest impact?

That’s where most large, established banks are right now. And if they aren’t yet, they will be soon, either by choice or due to circumstances out of their control. If you look at it this way, tech modernization is less of a choice and more of an inevitability.

But actually getting the job done? That’s where the real complexity comes in, as we’re sure you well know. Every digital transformation is as unique as a snowflake, requiring considerations of differing tech stacks, partner ecosystems, end-user requirements, in-house tech capabilities, local regulations and compliances, and the list goes on. So we’re not going to sit here and tell you there’s a “one-size-fits-all” solution that will clear up all of your problems.

However, that doesn’t mean you have to start from square one.

Like McKinsey, we see three clear paths here, each with its pros and cons:

  1. Big bang replacement

  2. Greenfield approach

  3. Progressive modernization

You just have to choose the route that will best help your bank with a front-to-back replacement, allowing you to improve the customer experience. Let’s take a look at each so you can start planning your digital transformation journey.

Three viable options for selecting your bank’s ideal digital transformation strategy

1. Big bang replacement

When you started thinking about modernizing your tech infrastructure, your mind probably went to the “big bang” method. And that’s natural, of course. This approach is flashy, bold, and sure to impress shareholders and customers alike.

By making a monolithic system update, banks can overhaul their user interface, core systems, and integrations all at the same time. That’s why the big bang option is a solid choice for banks with systems that are in urgent need of replacement — or, conversely, banks with a lot of time on their hands.

But take some time to consider whether this method is the best “bang for your buck,” so to speak.

When it comes to big bang replacements, banks put themselves at considerable risk. For one thing, they’re incredibly time consuming, meaning their solution may even be outdated by the time they launch. And don’t overlook the resources required to even pull it off. This approach is by far the most expensive of the three options, and it requires a tremendous amount of dedication from your organization, in particular your in-house teams.

So take the big bang approach with a grain of salt. It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. There’s absolutely a time and place for this method, just like there’s plenty of banks that would do well to select it. But most banks don’t have the time, resources, or risk appetite to do it justice — leading to inevitable failure, sometimes after years of work. And that makes a big bang a risky proposition.

2. Greenfield approach

If you’re primarily focused on speed and delivering value fast, the greenfield approach is the way to go. By reusing elements from your existing infrastructure, you can quickly create a cloud-native tech stack, saving you a significant amount of time and money. And on top of that, you can even eliminate the risk of disruption to your normal operations, and that’s a powerful selling point. It’s a medium-risk endeavor — and a medium-cost one — that prioritizes the speed of product innovation over the potential for data migration challenges.

But make no mistake, there are some real risks.

As CCG Insights notes, the purpose of a greenfield approach is to test new tech and customer propositions, and that means there’s always the possibility that it will fail entirely. While some banks may consider it a solid gamble, others may not welcome betting it all on a single project.

That’s why this method is particularly useful in the case that a major bank wants to create a new offering or sub-brand, one that cuts out the legacy problems that have plagued them in the past. Like JPMorgan Chase and “Finn by Chase,” these banks might not be as badly impacted by a bet gone wrong. But most banks simply don’t have that luxury.

At the end of the day, a greenfield approach is a solid strategy with a lot of positives, as well as a few negatives. In fact, some consultancies, such as Oliver Wyman, consider it the best choice for the average bank. But — spoiler alert — we can think of one that’s more appealing and even lower risk.

3. Progressive modernization

Yes, it’s progressive modernization — the middle-of-the-pack option that gives you medium speed and cost, but at significantly lower risk. Unlike the other approaches, a progressive modernization is suitable for almost every bank. Does that make it the perfect approach for every bank? Of course not. Like we said, each transformation is a unique journey. But the pros vastly outweigh the cons, making it your best bet, pound for pound.

But maybe you’re not yet familiar with this approach. Here’s our take on it.

Progressive modernization is your chance to re-architect your customer journeys and create instant value. By leveraging incremental change and iterative improvements, you’ll be able to modernize your most important customer journeys and underlying processes, all while mitigating risks and maximizing both customer and business value.

Of course, this is only possible after you’ve adopted a platform model, but with the right tech partner, this is much less daunting than you’d expect. By reimagining your operating model, you’ll be poised to capitalize on your underlying capabilities, which will be made reusable and interoperable. Imagine a digital factory, composed of smaller, more skilled teams, all working together on a standardized architecture and automated infrastructure.

And that’s the way you super-charge innovation.

Taking the next step towards digital transformation

We know it, and you know it — digital transformation is hard. It’s so hard, in fact, that many banks spend years kicking the idea around before market circumstances force them to act. And one of the biggest problems is getting started. But by selecting either a big bang, greenfield, or — preferably — a progressive modernization approach, you’ll take a lot of the guesswork out of things. That will allow you to start things off on the right foot and start delivering value fast.

Now that we’ve (hopefully) sold you on the progressive path, you’ll of course be needing a few details about how to actually make it happen. And we’ve got you covered. Stay tuned for the next blogs in the series, which will help you adopt this approach, design a modular architecture, leverage your ecosystems, and much more.