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CIO interview: David Charnley, head of transformation and strategy, NatWest Group

Data is at the heart of the banking giant’s push to improve customer experience – and to enhance its environmental credentials

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With almost two decades of experience working at NatWest Group, David Charnley, head of transformation and strategy at the financial services giant, knows better than most what it takes to tweak systems and services to create great new experiences for customers.

Charnley joined the bank in 2005 after starting his career with consulting giant Accenture. During his time with NatWest, he has fulfilled a range of roles. He became head of transformation for data analytics in 2019 and his role expanded to his current position in 2020. Charnley says he has stayed with the firm for so long because of its ambitions and ethos.

“It has a real sense of purpose and tries to put the customer at the heart of everything that it does,” he says. “The culture of the bank is productive and healthy. When you come to work every day, you want to be challenged.

“You want to have really interesting work to do, but you also want to like the people you work with, and you want to be in a place where you enjoy the interactions that you have. And when you do that, the work you produce is just so much better.”

Building internal data skills

Charnley’s job encompasses two main strands. The first is to define, agree and syndicate a data strategy for the NatWest Group. The other half of his job is to ensure the bank is running a series of transformation programmes that deliver the agreed data strategy and a series of related business outcomes. Across this remit, no two days are the same, says Charnley.

“I can be down at 500 feet, trying to help my team, my programme managers, our technologists and our engineers to resolve problems with technology delivery, challenges with governance or adoption, and trying to help them frame a particular aspect of the business,” he says.

“Or I can be up at 20,000 feet, talking to 200 of our senior leaders about where we want to take the bank and how data powers digital experiences, or talking to our group executive committee about the next wave of investment that we – together with our businesses – would like to make.”

Charnley says one of his key achievements during the last few years has been to help establish the NatWest Data Academy. This award-winning facility allows everyone in the bank to learn more about data. The academy offers a variety of courses – some are entry-level, some go deeper. In partnership with Udacity, NatWest offers nano-degrees for its engineers and data scientists. The firm also works with DataCamp to offer entry-level courses.

“On the one hand, that can be for somebody who is brand new to data and who sits in a practice or a function outside of data analytics but wants to become more data literate and wants to understand how to use or interpret data,” says Charnley.

“At the other extreme, it can be somebody who has had 20 years in data analytics as a data scientist or as a data engineer and who wants to get the next qualification or wants to understand a new platform or a new technology.”

Delivering a single customer view

Charnley says another key achievement since taking up his current role is to bring all the bank’s treasure troves of data together to create a single view of the customers it serves. This information can cover a range of areas, from reference data to personal details and on to transactions, balances and insights on interactions.

“All that data together can be used to personalise propositions, personalise marketing, establish pricing and ensure anti-fraud measures are in place, which help to keep our customers safe and secure,” he says.

“We can complete all that work through our data ecosystem, whether on-demand through application programming interfaces or by streaming direct into other services.”

“We are able to offload all of the data into Snowflake for analytics to get a really deep and rich picture of our customers’ behaviour”

David Charnley, NatWest Group

Charnley says much of that effort has taken place during the past 18 months and most of those initiatives are taking place in the cloud. The bank uses Snowflake as its data integration platform and the technology is helping his team to develop new services and experiences for NatWest customers.

“We are able to offload all of the data into Snowflake for analytics to get a really deep and rich picture of our customers’ behaviour,” he says. “And increasingly, customers are using it themselves through our digital propositions to manage their own data, so they can change their address, change their mobile, change their statement preferences, and so on.”

Charnley’s team continues to work with Snowflake to build the bank’s cloud platform and to give the rest of the business the scale it needs. During the next 12 months, the two partners will work together to shift NatWest’s legacy on-premise data estate into Snowflake.

“That work will mean all of our enterprise data is available to our business users and our engineers on the platform,” he says. “So, we’re really excited about what that will provide – it’s going to give us a really fast time to market, better performance and ease of use for all of our data engineers who come fresh to the technology.”

Making the most of cloud

Charnley says Snowflake technology has helped to transform the performance of data-led activities at the bank. NatWest has 100 million-plus records that can be processed through the Snowflake engine in less than four seconds.

The bank can also boast a 60% increase in data-modelling productivity by using Snowflake and other-cloud enabled tools, including those from business intelligence specialists Tableau and ThoughtSpot. This platform layer will allow Charnley’s team to create further data-led innovations for the bank. So, what will they be looking to do over the next couple of years?

Charnley says it’s hard to provide a concise response, simply because of the huge scale of work that his team is undertaking.

“It’s a really hard question to answer – not because I don’t have examples, but because we have so many,” he says. “There are many strands and there are lots of things that we want to go after.”

At a basic level, Charnley says there are three main elements to the bank’s data strategy – to champion customer-centricity, to leverage its data advantage for social good, and to scale and optimise a data-driven bank.

“We have ambitions in each of those three areas, but the things that we will focus on will be building out that 360-degree customer view and plugging it into our top 40 customer journeys,” he says. “We have integrated with around 20 of those so far. We’ve got another 20 to do over the next 12 months or so.”

Creating new customer services

Charnley says the data his team is collecting, sorting and making available to the business will allow the firm to provide better client-facing services in the future.

“Data and analytics are the mechanism to help us achieve our goals,” he says. “We are building out our decisioning engine, which provides customers with personalised, timely and relevant prompts to help meet their needs.”

Charnley’s team continues to keep a close eye on data-led innovation, and he says machine learning is a really important element of those endeavours. The bank is working with Amazon Web Services to deliver its first machine-learning platform.

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The bank is investing £1bn annually and £3bn over three years in technology, says Charnley, 80% of which is directed to digital and data programmes. “We can’t deliver on all those ambitions without an investment – and our spend on cloud is critical,” he says. “We are fundamentally re-engineering the engineering.”

That investment is already paying dividends. Whereas it might once have taken 40 days to create a new data science platform, those services can now be developed in 24 hours. Charnley says these projects are helping to boost customer engagement and improve experiences.

“We’ve used and developed machine-learning models to combat fraud, to combat financial crime, and to identify customers who need help or are in distress,” he says. “We have also used machine learning to understand the lifetime value of a customer and help predict what they need, sometimes before they even know it themselves.”

Looking towards sustainable development

Charnley says his team is also embracing innovation to use the data it collects to develop projects that provide what he calls “social good”.

The analytics team is creating emissions models to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements and to help executives think about the broader impact of the bank’s activities. “Our investments in climate analytics help to deliver our ambition of supporting the UK economy to a net-zero carbon emissions target,” he says.

When it comes to customer-facing activities, NatWest has partnered with carbon-tracking specialist CoGo to add a feature to its banking app that allows customers to see the carbon emissions associated with their daily spending, as well as providing tips on how to go greener. Users can log their commitments and behaviour changes.

The bank included 250,000 customers in its first trial of the mobile-banking feature. The average user saved about 11kg of emissions per month by committing to behavioural changes that used less carbon, such as composting, reducing meat consumption, or switching utilities providers.

If this behaviour was replicated across NatWest’s eight million customers who use the mobile app, it would save more than one billion kilograms of emissions a year, which is equivalent to planting 17 million trees. Charnley says this innovation shows the kinds of sustainability-focused scheme that his team would like to pioneer in the future.

“We are the first UK bank to have a carbon tracker in our mobile-banking app,” he says. “That has given thousands of customers an opportunity to see their carbon footprint and, critically, take actions to help minimise that footprint. We are at the beginning of a very long journey, but there are some big steps we’ve already taken.”

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