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Mirroring the conventional banking sector, Islamic finance institutions are turning to IT directors to lead the charge towards business innovation.
The Islamic economy is growing at nearly twice the rate of the global economy, with annual Muslim spending set to reach $2.6tn by 2020, according to Thomson Reuters. In a drive to tap into this rapid growth sector, Sharia-compliant banks are focused on cultivating product innovation and boosting customer service.
Zubair Ahmed, head of IT and business innovation at Dubai-based bank Emirates Islamic, is just one of a growing legion of business-led IT futurists in the Middle East.
“I work hard to remain true to my role,” he tells Computer Weekly. “It’s a business engagement position that requires extensive technical knowledge, with an ability to design core strategy in the business.”
Ahmed joined Emirates Islamic – formerly Dubai Bank – in 2007, and has since played a pivotal role in championing and steering the organisation’s innovation strategy.
He says the IT department is no longer viewed as simply an enabler, but as a business innovator in its own right.
As “co-creators”, his flexible, business-focused technology team creates products for the bank’s industry and organisational challenges, while also advising the business on how to proactively use technology to better serve its customers.
“We are not sitting back waiting for demand. We have elevated to a level where we are on equal footing with the other heads of business, and we have targets of a financial nature. I report directly into the CEO, so that helps in terms of organisational structure,” he says.
Ahmed says many of the bank’s innovations are born in the IT department, but they are triggered by the business. “We need to have a vision. True innovation is not simply technology-led, it has to be business-led and it has to enable solid adoption,” he says.
“Business innovation is all about getting in touch with business leaders and tapping into the different crowd resources available to us – staff, customers, students and suppliers. Each entity holds a very different perspective and, from here, ideas follow.”
The bank’s integrated tech innovation approach is yielding results. For example, Emirates Islamic was recognised among Global Finance’s 2016 ‘The Innovators’ of Islamic Finance for EI trade, a Shariah-compliant online trade finance and supply chain platform. In May 2016, it also became the first Islamic bank in the UAE to enable its customers to access basic account services via Twitter.
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Emirates Islamic was also the first UAE Islamic bank to launch a mobile banking app, in 2012. More recent innovations include a gamified banking app called EI World and a Scan to Pay app which allows customers to pay utility bills by scanning a QR code.
“Consumer awareness of technology has really advanced in the past five to six years; they are demanding a transformation of traditional banking processes and this is forcing banks to change,” says Ahmed. “Banks used to be rigid, process-driven and highly controlled organisations that expected customers to come to their branches and queue. But that notion is fast changing.”
He predicts that the next big idea in banking may not come from banks themselves. “It will come from innovators who are focused purely on customer needs and the limitations of banks, and not thinking about legacy, migration and conversion.”
Ahmed insists the region’s conventional banking industry is not under threat from radical financial technology (fintech) players. “You have to see it as a complementary ecosystem. You could have a mindset of ‘I’m going to be wiped out’, but we have to find a common ground. In that way, we create opportunities for everyone.”
Ahmed admits that Emirates Islamic is far from being a front-runner in cloud computing. He says this is partly because it’s one area where the bank can’t move alone.
“The entire environment has to be conducive for us to move forward, in terms of controls and government regulations,” he says.
Ahmed adds that, while some non-core parts of the business are in the cloud, “it’s not like any core part of our business is cloud-based, owing to security and risk concerns”.
However, he does not rule out using the cloud in future. “Cloud computing will take its own time to mature in the region. The year-on-year maturity of the basic nuts and bolts technology will also help its take-up. The cloud will become cheaper, faster and better over time.”
Wider regional adoption of cloud computing is just one of many changes Ahmed predicts for the regional banking industry in the coming years.
“We work on the reality that change will happen, and it will happen often – and when change happens, technology has to enable it,” he says. “You never feel that you know everything in this industry because technology is a moving target. There are always challenges and things to learn. I never feel firm-footed, and that’s the way I like it.”