‘At the end, it is the technology that delivers’

For Arundhanti Bhattacharya, Chairperson, State Bank of India, banking was never really on the horizon until she took the plunge as a young officer in 1977. From an english literature student to the head of India’s largest banking institution, she has walked a tough path and her professional journey is one that is interesting and inspiring in many ways.

Bhattacharya took over the reins of SBI last year and became the bank’s first woman chairperson. Despite hailing from a non-IT background, she garnered attention and praises for her renewed thrust on IT and has been instrumental in bringing in technology-led developments in areas like risk mitigation, product pricing, loan recovery, employee productivity and so on.

Honoured with the Jury’s Special Award at the Dataquest ICT Awards, Bhattacharya tells us what she feels about receiving the award and also shares her views on why technology is a game changer for the banking industry and how it continues to redefine the industry with a whole new set of opportunities and challenges. Let’s hear it in her words, what it means. 

Really this award is something that I would not have thought possible. Being a totally non-technical person to be awarded in respect of technology is really a great honour. I am truly humbled and accept it from the bottom of my heart.

If you consider the brain for organizations is the top management, the spine for such organizations is the technology. Without technology we can’t move a single step. No matter how much we plan or think, at the end it is the technology that delivers.

If you look at a bank like State Bank of India, some of the biggest challenges that we face is the fact that we have customers who on the one end are global customers and on the other end are customers who are not only illiterate, they literally have to be taken by the hand and exactly shown where to place their thumb.

We have a large number of customers who are pensioners, who are quite old, and who will not touch anything that has to do with machines. On the other hand, we have a large number of young customers who refuse to go to branches and will only deal with the screen. So these are the kind of challenges that a bank like ours has, that is, the kind of numbers that we handle. If you consider that, you can imagine the empowerment that technology has done for us. Because without technology it would have been impossible for us to handle the number of customers, the number of transactions that we do with ease today.

Just the other day I was addressing the US India Business Council and I was telling them that the number of customers State Bank has exceeds the population of Australia. It is true and people were quite amazed. But the fact of the matter remains that we are able to do this only because technology empowers us to do it.

Today we are talking about the Jan Dhan Yojna of the Prime Minister. This is basically a financial inclusion plan that envisages that every family in this country will not only have a bank account they will also be able to operate that account without having to go into a branch. That is they will be able to operate it through a card.

Even when I came in I realized that this entire organization that I am going to head with its 220,000 employees, can only be put together on one platform and that platform again is technology.

So, what all have we done on the technology front? We have just recently implemented a digital platform. Digital platforms are basically branches of the future. They are in high street shopping areas, they are in malls, they have huge big screens, they have no chairs and tables and there is no cash. Everything is done on the basis of the IT platform. So if you have your aadhar number, you can go to any of the account opening kiosks, type in your aadhar number and scan your finger print. Within 30 seconds the entire data will get populated into the bank along with your photograph, and within 15 minutes you can walk out from the bank with a fully personalized debit card, that will be created and printed in the branch itself and given to you.

So that is the place we have grown to from where opening an account needed multiple visits to the bank. Also, there is now a way of creating a particular audit trail to ensure each of our employees are doing what they are supposed to do and doing it in the right manner.

If you consider the media today, there is so much of material out there that is published on a daily basis. Say, I have lent money to a company and this company is being talked about in the official electronic media or informal social media, technology enables me to immediately get an alert if this company is being talked about.

I think it has already been said that banking will not go away but banks as we recognize it today may not exist in the future. I won’t go as far as that because as far as money is concerned people like to have a brick and mortar structure around for them to realize that the bank is stable and available whenever they need it. But having said that, these brick and mortar structures will slowly become more and more scarce. As we go forward we will necessarily have to get in touch with our customers at times that are convenient to them and basically there would therefore be times outside working hours and that can only happen through the digital platform.

Now how do I determine which of the 222,000 people is the best fitted for a particular job? Earlier this would be a manual exercise and we would try and brainstorm to find the right person. But today if you are keeping a track of your employees, and you have information on what are the skills they are developing or what are the trainings they are going to, at which stage of career are they and thereafter if you have a position and you put in the right kind of attributes for that position, the system itself will throw up who are the best candidates for filling this position. Employees can find out what their targets are and on a monthly basis they can find out how close or how far they are to their targets. And therefore can moderate the pace of their work.

Therefore, I have seen and I believe that technology is really a game changer. It is something that has now become totally necessary for us. And we can’t do without it. At the same time, it is also a hard task master, in the sense that it evolves very fast and we need to evolve along with it. So our capacity for accepting change and thinking out of the box and our capacity for thinking totally new solutions also have to be developed. And that is where I believe the basic challenge lies. The challenge lies in ensuring that with all the advantages that technology is throwing up, we are able to absorb those, bring those into our working and ensure that we have a win-win proposal for all.

To that extent, I feel that this award that is given to me will enthuse me more for looking for better solutions and ensuring that we do the best for our employees, stakeholders and customers.

Technology is something that really has the key to providing efficiency which at this point of time we are still not able to conceive and something we are still aspiring for.

Thank you Dataquest,for considering my name and my organization for this award.