Articles 22 min read

The Future of Business and Blockchain…Will they work together? with Prasoon Mukherjee

We conducted a Q&A interview with Prasoon, Vice President at Société Générale Global Solution Centre, around digital transformation, and the future including blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

About Prasoon…

Prasoon has over 20 years of combined experience in IT consulting and capital market operations, having worked as a thought leader and domain specialist in multiple streams of IT and banking functions including; portfolio accounting, fund analytics, securities lending & borrowing, custodial operations, corporate actions processing, settlements, transfer agency services etc. Currently, he is employed with a French bank, heading fund services and custody operations unit in delivery and IT strategy.

Over two decades, Prasoon has spent time with some large, capital market entities during a period when the financial sector is continuously witnessing disruptive changes in the electronic segment. He has played critical roles in ideating and implementing some very large transformation projects which cuts across complex asset classes, shortening of settlement cycles involving host of regulatory changes and how these critical functions hook up today with multi-channel online systems. He has extensive international exposure having executed, delivered and managed strategic initiatives in various capacities across diverse financial services entities in North America, Europe & APAC.

Besides this, Prasoon loves nurturing his interests in writing and sharing acquired wisdom on disruptions in the field of finance, technology, economics, politics and how they impact the banking and financial services world in general.
In this interview Prasoon shares some very interesting perspectives on how digital transformation is shaping the financial services sector today.

Digitisation is often discussed in the same capacity as digital transformation, but what’s the difference?

This question is not discussed very often and sometimes habitually at work and in life we tend to use the three terms: digitisation, digitalization and digital transformation interchangeably, that often leads to misrepresentation of reality. For example, how often have we heard people refer to digitizing their business – as much as it’s a wrong expression to use, it also sounds a little out of place, because the objective obviously is not to automate everything in business, turning people into bits and bytes, replace all individuals with robots or connect all with IoT. A better way to put across a similar thought would be to pose questions like “what would it take to digitize a process?” or “what should be an ideal path to digitalization?” or “what should our digital transformation strategy be?”.

This brings us back to the question of how should the three expressions be used and in what context. A very ubiquitous way to use the three expressions would be to make use of the word “Digitization”; is creating digital (bits and bytes) version of an otherwise analog or manual process such as paper documents, and manual delivery process etc. In other words, it’s about altering (not replacing) or representing something that is non-digital (examples being signatures, people records, identification records etc.) into a digital format which then can be used by any computer system for any downstream processing. The term “digitalization” is mainly used as the mode of moving towards a digital system or a digital setup following the much larger digital transformation strategy. In other words, digitalization, as I see is a flow concept and refers to the path that organizations take towards digitization.

This logically brings us to the third expression “digital transformation”. In the contemporary banking world (and I am sure it applies across), digital transformation is an enterprise-wide phenomenon that helps in accelerating the transformation of business, processes and operations fully leveraging on digital and emerging technologies.

Digital Transformation within organisations can be difficult, but what is the importance of people in executing the technical aspects?

Firstly, its pertinent to re-phrase the question a little. It’s not only the significance of people in executing the technical aspects, but it’s also the people’s understanding of the core business on which transformation rests. Often the second element is either ignored or it takes a back seat in the race towards chasing technology. As a result, we have often experienced that when transformation strategies focus primarily on technology and technology alone, at later stages, adapting to changing business demands become quite difficult. As Stephen Covey has rightly said – “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place, faster”. The metaphorical notion being, its often late in the transformation journeys the realization comes that the climb to that journey was propped against the wrong wall.

Now coming to the crux of the question as what significant role people play in planning and adoption of digital transformation? Well for any digital transformation to be successful a stereotype answer will be that companies need (amongst other roles) good strategists, user experience designers, strong product managers who can challenge the status quo and come up with new definitions of services or products based on what change demands etc etc. However, I strongly believe that there are three powerful tenets to building and executing any transformation strategy and all three rest on people as the key contributor.

1. First and at the beginning of any transformation journey there must be an impactful story. The “why” of transformation. And people play a critical role in coming up with this important definition of “why”. Why transformation is needed in the first place? For those of us who have read “Sapiens” written by Yuval Noah Harari, (a delightful book and highly recommended), he has this thesis that everything that’s surrounding us is a story, money is a story, corporation is a story and governments are stories too. Using the same metaphor therefore, banking is a story and so is any digital transformation strategy in a bank. It’s a story, that needs a solid foundation and a good storyteller to build a strong community of followers in the first place, because in the process of adoption if people stop believing in these stories then transformation may cease to exist. As Harari puts in, humans are story telling monkeys and this idea that we can unite each other by telling and believing in stories, make us the most power creature, as we are the only animals who can unite within cross genetic boundaries telling each other stories.

2. Second is about creating the right network of people in sync with the transformation stories. For example, and drawing parallels – religion is a network, communities are networks and so is money, that’s also a network. Banking is a network too and to successfully run transformation in any bank what we need is a network of people who can come together around a common set of values and beliefs.

3. The third and most important challenge with networks is how do we run them, how do we organize people by convincing them of the story and who do we make in charge? Historically the answer to these challenges has not been very good in incumbent organizations, which has led to many transportation journeys being cold stored. One answer is to get a king, an authority with the biggest stick to tell everybody what to do – this doesn’t work. Another could be, having an aristocracy in which the elites (for example one of the big consulting firms) tell the bank what and how to execute – in most cases this doesn’t work either because if adoption is not tied to strategy it’s only a small part of the problem that elites solve. Or in another form the ‘commoners’ run the network, a complete democratic setup, a French revolution kind. But the tragedy of the commons is in too many free thinkers.

In all practical sense, therefore, while there is no single strategy (like a silver bullet) applicable to all transformation situations, what is definitely needed is a combination of a powerful transformation story, good storytellers, right governance backed by technology and all of these backed by network of people at the centre, who have a common set of values and beliefs who are skilled enough to wear the right hats given their respective roles.

What would you say is the biggest pitfall of an organisation going through digital transformation – What do organisations get wrong?

In the contemporary environment, there are two interlinked stories that most banks are following. “Innovation” and “Transformation”. And the factor that’s common between both in most cases, is digital. One can argue that transformation can assume other forms too , like a bank which may be also transforming into Agile and Lean delivery models is going through agile transformation, but what’s really happening in most large banks today is that a significant amount of annual expenditure is being allocated towards remodelling the more critical functions that have bearing on their services, operations, compliance and distribution channel adopting the digital levers like APIs to move into open banking, AI and ML to leverage on predictive modelling, moving to cloud to reduce infra cost, focusing on UX to improve end user experience, robotics to automate repetitive and high volume work etc.
Practically considering, any theoretical stand that takes an extreme negative view of transformation in banks is not right. Yes, transformation journeys do go wrong at times but what banks do at those junctures is step back, recalibrate and carry on. It’s very uncommon these days to learn of long-term transformation plans which are stretched beyond 2 years. Gone are the days when banks had a 5 years transformation strategy and at the end of the journey results were seen. Today’s fast changing market dynamics generally ensure that banks have leaner strategies which are executed with agility, keeping regular checkpoints, which get recalibrated every year at minimum, if not every few months, with target stakeholders, market and competition to ensure that tracks are altered if needed.
However, when changes in strategies happen too frequently it leads to transformation fatigue and that completely slows down people in the organization which then becomes extremely difficult to recharge. And this primarily happens because of the below 3 reasons:

1. To quote Stephen Covey again – “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place, faster”. This happens when banks are not considering the full scope of what is needed to successfully transform. Sometimes the approach is so very technology focused that the real business case of transformation gets shadowed and technology runs as the primary driver for change, in which case, often late in the game it’s realized that either the reasons were wrong, or the approach was wrong.

2. When results of innovation are tied too soon to cost efficiency or cost arbitrage. In other words when the three themes of innovation – “disruptive”, “sustenance” and “efficiency” are at loggerheads to each other. While on one side disruptive change strategies call for more risk-taking, organizations in parallel also start seeking for efficiency and cost reduction from those strategies. The two go in conflict and the result is failure.

3. Transformations are long and arduous journeys, with banks often taking a stand on outsourcing transformations. Personally, I don’t think this is the right recipe. Ideation and building on strategies with a consulting firm is good to do, but the responsibility to execute must rest with the bank. To do this, the key is in identifying the right set of people from within the organization who are skilled to do the job, who have business focus, feel related to the culture of the bank and can see inside out rather than have a superficial view of the change triggers that the bank is trying to transform.

How has the increasingly digital nature of business today led to some drastic technical developments, like blockchains, cryptocurrencies etc.?

Having been in this industry for close to 20 years and by virtue of the fact that most of my work has been at the interfacing points between business and information technology, I can convincingly say that the role of IT in business has significantly changed in the last decade.

Traditionally in banks, technology was looked at as problem-solving agent or as means to improve efficiency in the process of achieving business goals. This often meant that if the core business of a bank was to raise deposits, give loans, settle transactions, reconcile records etc, technology helped in doing these tasks more efficiently and in a cost-effective way, to ensure that the banks remained profitable for the shareholders while serving their clients.

However, now there has been a paradigm shift in how technology is considered as not only just an agent to solve complex business problems but also a business enabler. Increasingly, digitalization is being used as a lever to define new business models that drive revenue growth or innovate on newer distributional channels to reach out to potential customers who were otherwise outside the banking network. And all this has been made possible by improvement in technology related to data storage, data processing, visualization, networking speed and cheaper and easy access of internet by consumers across the globe.

We have gone past the time when implementing or replacing a legacy core banking solution was considered as a transformation demand. Now banks have to respond to demands of API, implement omnichannel delivery systems, use data, AI through advanced analytics to meet the new generation computing demand, respond to regulatory changes which are a consequence of digital disruptions, and even get ready for the future where frameworks like distributed ledger technology/blockchain may make their existing ways of conducting business and operations completely redundant.

Distributed leger technology (DLT) or blockchain as its commonly termed will have a significant impact in the way banking transactions are conducted in the future. However, as we discuss this subject, today the banking and capital markets space is still at level 0 of its implementation. Consortiums of financial institutions have got together and are building future frameworks that can go live once the market protocols are ready, however, I feel we are still some distance away from mass adoption. There are pockets in which DLT has been put to production, however its restricted to areas where contracting entities are limited to a few counterparties, who are mostly bilateral and deal in over the counter transactions where there is less dependency on the complete ecosystem within which the banks operate.

There are three important drivers to the blockchain phenomenon which are less discussed, and therefore let’s understand them.

1. Unlike many technological innovations which a bank can ideate and implement in isolation, in the case of blockchain, there isn’t anything like a single financial entity implementing a DLT framework on its existing process and going into production on its own, rather in this case, every dependent entity which is a part of the ecosystem has to go live on the DLT framework at the same time for the system to work. Making this a humongous journey. This is the reason why the existing use cases in production are mostly in those areas where only two or few parties are involved. In more complex cases, banks have come together as consortiums to work on futuristic models which can go live once the markets have evolved and are ready to adapt to the changes holistically.

2. In a contract, there are always two legs of a transition – one consideration (what is given) is exchanged for another consideration (that is taken in return). Most use cases which are going into production using the DLT framework are the kind of low hanging fruits in the financial world where the trade is bilateral (for reasons explained in point 1 above) and only one leg of the transaction is settled within the blockchain framework. To draw an analogy, if we consider the bitcoin framework – it only takes care of the payments side of a transaction without taking into consideration the other leg which may be a commodity or a service taken or given in return. This or similar use cases can work to a limited extent where financial institutions have no responsibility to ensure that the other leg of the transaction is duly settled as well. However, in complex models such as securities settlements, corporate actions, securities lending and borrowing etc where a financial entity is entrusted with the role of a guarantor or a central clearing agent to ensure that both legs of transactions are duly settled, DLT poses a challenge in current context of its scale of adoption. It’s again a humongous task for the complete banking industry to evolve from its current settlement systems to a target system role where central counterparties can be taken out.

3. In the context of blockchain, the industry has often used the following there concepts interchangeably which is not right. They are separate by-products of the DLT framework and therefore should be considered separately for any constructive discussion. Though they are related, their adoption needs to be understood in isolation because the three are mutually exclusive use cases.

a. Smart Contract – As opposed to traditional contracts which are validated by law, smart contracts are mathematically guaranteed. In essence, a smart contract will operate in the way it is programmed every time, so there is a relatively low risk of fraud.

b. Token – A token is any digital asset that is created on a blockchain. They are a representation of an asset or utility that are fungible and tradable – like commodities, securities or even currencies. For example, it can represent part ownership in a firm in the form of shares. The tokens can then be used as a medium to execute a smart contract and be traded much like shares on the blockchain.

c. Cryptocurrencies – To keep it simple, cryptocurrency is just another form of token. Or digital virtual currencies which have been tokenized and can be executed as smart contract on a blockchain.

In terms of adoption, while smart contracts and tokens are already being adopted at a more rapid pace than we can imagine not only in the banking space but in other industries as well, I assume cryptocurrencies will take a while before it becomes mainstream for macro-economic reasons. 

Do you think blockchain and cryptocurrencies are going to be a bigger transformation than the internet age?

Taking off from my previous response, I strongly feel that in terms of adoption in the near future, platforms that bring blockchain technology to scale, and utility tokens that sit on the platforms will gain more focus than cryptocurrencies only. Both of these components, more specifically the platform, will be more vital because they will define the next generation of internet. By internet here I don’t mean the world wide web, but the network concept which I explained in response to one of the earlier questions.

This generation of network will be a composition of 4 protocols much like the following:
1. A decentralized storage protocol much like what DLT prescribes.
2. A decentralized transaction protocol like Ethereum or Ripple
3. 1 and 2 will automatically bring in a decentralized messaging protocol>
4. Aided by computing power that will have highly efficient throughout

The second protocol sets the stage for building reusable platform with high reusability and what we will witness in the next few years is a market in which organizations will compete to get the biggest share of the platform market. And we may even see large banks partnering with platform providers to get an early advantage in adoption which is already happening.

As Naval Ravikant (CEO AngelList) explains – “Blockchains will create a fifth protocol layer powering the next generation of the internet”, which possibly means that future of blockchain may not take centralization completely away but will definitely bring in a new age discipline in an otherwise market system where most critical functions dealing with counterparty risks are controlled by central clearing agencies today.

Do you think cryptocurrencies will change the world of work as much as we think?

It’s a no-brainer that cryptocurrencies, (if) they were to ever become mainstream currency system will definitely change the world of work more than what we can contemplate today. But having said that, it’s important to realize that the hypothesis of cryptocurrencies within the framework of DLT is very different from nations which may want to digitize their currency.

A nation may want to digitize their currency system, however retaining their authority on the monetary system and therefore everything related to its issuance and circulation. This is not adoption of cryptocurrencies in true sense because in the process of digitizing their currency the nation-state does not dilute their authority and its ownership on its creation and circulation, while one of the main tenets of cryptocurrencies within the framework of DLT is decentralization.

For example, if Venezuela decides to rebase their currency system under a new protocol and call it “Petro”, which may be completely digital by its existence but it will still not be considered as a cryptocurrency because of two reasons:

1. The state will continue to have an authority on its creation and circulation. Whereas, at genesis, the rationale behind the creation of cryptocurrencies is decentralization with no central authority in-between. If Petros get “pre-mined”, meaning that the state produces and controls it, there is no decentralization there.
2. Creation and valuation of this currency is a function of the basket of assets that it will represent, for example by oil, gas, gold and diamonds. Whereas, in the distributed ledger model for cryptocurrencies, merit in markets is determined by a commitment of resources. The meritorious are those who work to advance the network. Just like society gives money for giving society what it wants, blockchains give coins for giving the network what it wants. For example, bitcoin network pays for securing the ledger. While ethereum pays for executing and verifying computation.

It’s therefore important for an informed reader to be able to separate out hype from the reality when consuming anything that’s published in the general media. Now, going back to the root question, if cryptocurrencies will ever become mainstream, much depends on how the framework will also encompass within itself (if it has to act independently), the principle tenets of macroeconomics. There can’t be any mainstream adoption of this new protocol until there are fundamentally strong answers to take care of this important influence.

Do you think it will ever come to a time when cryptocurrencies replace a national currency?

At the outset, before answering this question I must make it clear that personally, I don’t have any negatively biased view on cryptos. On the contrary, I share this thought with my students and co-workers that even if we are not convinced about the future of cryptos, but you think that there is a 5 % chance of cryptocurrencies becoming mainstream reality in the coming years, it’s better to dig deep and understand its functionality, developing an informed view than just shunning it as a hype. Because if the markets develop surrounding its protocol then the people who will ride the tide will be those who believed in the 5% story.

Having said that, and taking a pure macroeconomic view of this asset class, I have a strong view that the cryptocurrencies space is not being discussed very deeply by the mainstream media, other than some popular facts which make them an alternative medium of exchange in the payments space. Important questions which yet remain unexplored are – Why Central Banks will find it difficult to replace a national currency with something like Bitcoin? And even if this is asked, the answers are always quite short-sighted. For example, often the reason given is – “because central banks would not like to give away their authority”. Whereas, the pertinent reasons are very macroeconomic in nature related to Central Banks also playing the role of a governing body in every nation that controls money supply, and which is a tool of immense importance for a nation’s economic, political and social stability. Before this central authority is diluted, there needs to be some alternate method in place to govern money supply, inflation, national fiscal imbalances etc., which is really rather farfetched from the context of where we stand today in terms of ideation. Therefore, the adoption of any cryptocurrency as a national currency is still some time away.

There are two unique economic principles which get challenged the moment we place a cryptocurrency as a national currency, or a world currency replacing all national currencies.

1. In our hypothesis that cryptos become a national currency, the most flawed assumption is that the issuance of such an asset class will be self-governed with no central authority in charge. This relates to my previous answer where I mentioned that in a DLT network, merit in markets is determined by a commitment of resources. The meritorious are those who work to advance the network. Just like society gives money for giving society what it wants, blockchains give coins for giving the network what it wants. This in macro-economic sense takes away the authority of central bank in governing money supply… If this authority is taken away the flawed assumption that this hypothesis makes, is that, in the state, fiscal conditions will always be balanced, public expenditure will always equal public revenue, and therefore, there will be no need for a central bank to intervene using monetary policies. Which, in other words means no fiscal deficit, balanced inflation, steady employment and market driven interest rates. These are quite utopian thoughts.

2. In our second hypothesis that cryptos become a world currency – Theoretically, it would mean that all countries of the world will surprisingly, not only have all their internal fiscal conditions in perfect order as explained in point 1, but as well share amongst all other nations the same level of economic parameters like inflation, unemployment, fiscal deficits etc. which would then have no ask for national central bankers and as well any governance at a world level.

What I mean to say is that, the above macroeconomic factors are seldom brought on to the table for discussion when considering the feasibility of cryptocurrencies becoming a national currency. On the contrary, if these subjects are deliberated there can be very interesting analogies drawn from concepts like single economies, monetary unions, how EU has evolved under a single currency rule over the last decade, their challenges etc. However, as these are not well understood by the general mass, the subject of cryptocurrency, whenever discussed, is mostly left to satisfy individual egos in thrashing central authorities with a very myopic view on the role of central banks that completely dilutes the overall purpose of a discussion, as central banks responsibility on the overall monetary system of a nation is much more than just being a point of convergence where creation and issuance of currency rests.

Do you think external factors will ever affect cryptocurrencies, and if so what factors will affect it?

Keeping this response short, I personally think that the blockchain framework will impact our societies and business in the following 4 stages as it becomes mainstream:

1. In the next few years, we will witness stage 1 of blockchain adoption – frameworks being implemented as part of those businesses where central governance can be replaced by DLT frameworks without much of government resistance. These are the sectors like hospitals, healthcare, education records and as well simpler use cases in the financial sector, where compliance will be easier to meet, like over the counter trades, trade finance, LCs.

2. Stage 1 above will lay the foundation for stage 2, where institutions will get more confidence and DLT frameworks will gradually get acceptance in state models where government domination is generally difficult to dilute, nevertheless competition from private sector will enforce change. These will be sectors like land registration, the way we run elections, vehicle registration etc.

3. In Stage 3, a consortium of banks by that time would possibly have come up with frameworks, platforms and protocols to tokenize asset classes and adopt DLT in business functions like trades, settlements, compliance and reporting, corporate actions, transfer agency services etc. Still, the real challenge in stage 3 would be how the financial systems take away the central clearing agent from all of these functions and still ensure that settlement of both legs of a financial transaction are done without counterparty risk. The concept is further explained as part of question number 4.

4. In Stage 4 some of the nations may start digitizing their currencies, after having done substantial research from ideation to implementation involving the complete banking sector. But in doing so, I personally think that they will not dilute their authority over monetary economics of the country. Therefore, the central authority will still remain unlike what the bitcoin proponents challenge.

In a highly volatile world the timelines are difficult to predict, but it will be interesting to not only witness such change taking place but also be a part of this period where we will play an important part in actual implementation of some of these use cases in our own capacities. That’s why I repeat again – “even if we are not convinced of this story, but there is a 5 % chance of blockchain becoming a mainstream reality in the coming years, it’s better to dig deep and understand its functioning and develop an informed view than just shun it as a hype. Because if the markets do develop surrounding its protocol, then the people who will ride the tide will be those who believed in the 5% story”.

Technology is fast-paced and ever-changing. What do you see as the big changes in the financial sector being caused by this disruption?

When we discuss disruption, in most cases, we tend to see the complete financial markets with the same lense. Whereas, this approach prevents us from taking a more holistic view of different segments of the financial markets.

Often, when talking about disruption, the common factors of changes that comes to mind are those which are caused by Fintech firms. Undoubtedly, Fintechs have been one of the primary catalysts of change in banks, however, deeper analysis highlights that Fintech’s have mostly disrupted the retail banking space with very few exceptions in other sectors. This relates to the very characteristics of disruption that happens in all industries – In their initial stages, disruption targets lower gross margin products, which can target high volume markets with easier consumer reach, with simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive to the incumbents when compared against those product lines which are more complex to understand and have higher gross margins. Because these lower tiers of the market offer lower gross margins, they are unattractive to the incumbents for defending, creating space at the bottom of the market for new disruptive competitors to emerge. The same has happened in the banking sector so far, as most disruptions have been in low margin retail functions such as payments systems, crowdfunding, peer to peer lending, etc. In the next stage of disruption, we witness disruptors trying to move up the value chain facing the incumbent head-on, and the incumbents accelerating their innovations to defend their business. Either they beat back the entrant by offering even better services or products at comparable prices, or they acquire the entrants. Data supports this theory and that’s what we are witnessing in the banking and financial services sector too.

As a result, I am inclined to think that, following will be, some of the interesting changes to look out for in this disruptive market:

1. Most Fintechs will continue to be the catalysts, targeting lower end of the product and services chain. As they progressively gain more insights on knowledge and working of more complex value streams they will try to penetrate up.

2. During the same period, when they are attempting to penetrate up, the Fintechs will face aggressive competition within themselves and from the incumbent banks as well. At this stage, we will witness more partnerships, mergers and acquisitions in this space. Only the ones who are able to get into impactful partnerships will step into the next phase of development and growth.

3. The other important change that we will witness in this space is related to compliance. Post-2008, while compliance has become more complex to handle by the incumbent banks, however, it has not been so heavy on the Fintechs. Of late, there is an increased level of scrutiny by regulators on security and privacy challenges faced by Fintech companies. As more services go online and data becomes more ubiquitous, information security is proving to be a major challenge. Having said that, as and when regulators are gradually bringing the Fintechs within their regulatory realms, these smaller firms are finding it difficult to sustain the cost associated with managing compliance which is either leading to their closures or they are partnering and merging to garner economies of scale. The same will continue until the disruptions have reached a stage of maturity and most newer business models, which place the end consumer at risk, have been brought under the reins of compliance.

This interview is exclusive to The Business Transformation Network.

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