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CIO interview: Johan Kestens, ING Belgium

ING Belgium’s CIO talks to Computer Weekly in depth about the technology-driven changes in the banking sector

Johan Kestens, managing director and CIO at ING Belgium, is a man on a mission.

The experienced IT director is approaching the end of his second year at the bank and is keen to help the business make the most of innovation.

“My whole career has been centred on IT and finance, so it gives me the opportunity to work as a CIO and put my years of knowledge into practice,” he told Computer Weekly. “I believe we need a new type of banking. With my colleagues, I want to help create a service that is both more caring and higher-performing.”

Kestens said technology sits at the core of his transformational aims. “A modern bank is increasingly like a huge IT infrastructure that links the people working for the bank with its customers,” he said, referring to the ever-increasing automation of finance activities.

As CIO, Kestens is a member of ING Belgium’s executive committee, which gives him a broad view of activities across the organisation. His place on the executive committee is also proof that the bank recognises the crucial role played by IT in modern financial services, he said.

“Technology is not just seen as a back-office function,” said Kestens. “It is at the core of our strategy. We want to make our service both extremely digital and extremely personal.”

Such personalisation means customers will be able to use banking services at any time and via any device, including wearable devices such as smart watches. 

Kestens said modern banks must be able to operate at ease 24/7, and a high quality of service must extend across multiple online channels. “Operations remains a priority – it will always be a priority for banks,” he said.

The focus on day-to-day services does not mean Kestens and his colleagues are not also looking toward IT innovation, however.

New style of banking

To help deliver on his transformative aim of a new style of banking, Kestens is keen to modernise the firm’s application and infrastructure portfolio. “The aim is to be as digital as we possibly can be,” he said. “To do that, I need my people to be more productive and creative – and that dual focus means our staff have to be agile.”

He recognises that agile is a hot topic right now, especially for CIOs, and pointed out that new tools are being developed all the time.

But as new agile approaches are adopted, employees can become concerned about their own role and position within the organisation, he said.

“Engineers are very emotional – you need to standardise tools, and that is not an easy process because people become possessive about the tools they use. You have to do that because if you don’t, there will be no consistency and you risk spinning out of control,” he said, and stressed the importance of testing.

Great measurement

“The most difficult challenge is to articulate the requirements specifically,” Kestens added. “Change is about configuration and testing, and that is where great measurement becomes important.

“Testing is a not a GPS system – it is a compass that gives relative indications. That’s fine, as long as you understand it is relative. True value only becomes apparent over time; it’s a long-term commitment.”

Once the role of agile is understood and articulated, it brings big business benefits, said Kestens. Agility represents a modern form of development that is more upbeat than the traditional ‘waterfall’ way of working in an IT department, he said.

Kestens believes the Benelux countries are well suited to working in a more co-operative and collaborative style.

“Relationship development, and the depth of relationship achieved, both in Belgium and Luxembourg, is clearly above the European average,” he said. “The explanation might be cultural or historical. Belgium, for example, has always been a forerunner in certain technological evolutions, such as the electronic debit card. We are now leading in smart watch applications.”

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As he continues to push a transformation in banking services, Kestens expects a number of challenges to arise in the next couple of years. The whole banking sector has to deliver customer value in a period of exceptionally low interest rates, he said. “The continuation of that trend means the sailors at the helm of these organisations have to sail very close to the wind.”

Another challenge is that banks need to keep up with the latest technology trends, while decommissioning older systems. If the spread of technologies that businesses use becomes too wide, it can become a very complex task to keep everything up and running, said Kestens.  

“Finance CIOs must keep their technology portfolios sufficiently compact in order to be efficient and fast,” he added.

Innovation is crucial, said Kestens, pointing to continued efforts in wearable technology. Creative endeavours are not just focused internally, he said.

“I also want to help inspire a great engineering culture – that’s true for ING Belgium and the country more generally,” he said.

I want to help inspire a great engineering culture – that’s true for ING Belgium and the country more generally
Johan Kestens, ING Belgium

“Many of the successful disruptors are successful because they changed the elements into a scalable software model. The power of imagination is crucial. Increasingly, the world is beginning to understand that engineers are like artists – there are engineers that make a difference and we all want access to these kinds of people.”

Kestens wants to work with ING to help make Belgium a more innovative place in which to live and work. Examples of moves in the right direction are the launch of ING FinTech Village, the first Belgian accelerator dedicated to financial technologies, and support for entrepreneurial start-up programme iMinds, he said.

“Work is taking place across a range of areas, including creative ways of paying, and leading-edge algorithms related to personal financial assistance,” he said. “We want to make life better for people through the use of technology. But, like most things in life, you need to find the true usefulness over time.”

Success in innovation only comes from a broad and open approach, said Kestens. “You need a mindset that is set for experimentation,” he said.

And how would he describe a successful outcome for his approach in two years’ time? “We’d have a better bank than today.”

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