CXO: Automation increases client value and staff satisfaction

Technology drives business goals and attracts talent

Björn Welander
Head of Securities and Wealth Operations, SEB

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Read the article and learn about:

  • Automation holds value potential for clients, business and staff
  • New technology will help unleash the potential of automation
  • More value-added tasks generated by technology and automation will help attract and retain the workforce of the future

About the interviewee

Björn Welander heads up operations for all securities-based products for SEB’s offering to the wealth management sector. Holding double Masters Degrees in Economics as well as Engineering, Björn has been driving substantial change initiatives across the banking and asset management industries.

Björn has extensive management experience from the banking industry, as well as e.g. being CEO of a market leading consulting company in the Nordic financial sector. Over the last years his focus has been on emerging technologies, e.g. AI and Robotics, and how to practically apply them in an operations environment to gain efficiencies and an improved client experience.


The global investment management industry faces increasing competition and greater complexity. In the recurrent CXO Corner relay column, we ask top executives to point the way ahead, sharing their views and best practices for meeting the challenges. This time, we interview Björn Welander, Head of Securities & Wealth Operations, SEB.


Journal: Can you tell us a bit about your career, before and after joining SEB?

Björn Welander: Before joining SEB, I spent 15 years in the consulting industry, focusing on the asset management sector, spanning everything from software development to management consulting. After joining SEB, just over ten years ago, I have taken on various management positions covering most areas touching securities in one way or another. Currently, I am heading up Securities & Wealth Operations being globally responsible for securities administration in SEB.


Journal: What is your key motivational driver?

Björn Welander: Designing and building the future back and middle office for securities-related products is a great inspiration to me. It involves so many aspects that must all work seamlessly together; including the client offering, the processes, the IT systems and staff.

In general, I thrive when working with challenging transformations, where we can make a substantial difference for our clients. Considering the immense opportunities in the back and middle office areas, it is truly an interesting corner of the financial industry, where one can really make an impact.


Journal: Where do you see the greatest potential for making an impact in your current role?

Björn Welander: Definitely in the area of automation! Even though we, as an industry, have come far already on our automation journey, there is still so much more to do. Not only do we need to work with automation using traditional IT development combined with AI and new automation tools, but at the same time we need to revolutionize our way of working as well as our approach towards back office work.

Perhaps the most rewarding area to work with is the transformation of organizations and the people who work in them. It is arguably also the hardest area, since it involves changing people’s mindset about the way we work. Finding new ways of collaborating releases untapped potential in the organization to the benefit of our clients – and it generates higher satisfaction for the employees involved who get to work with more value-added tasks.


Journal: What is your vision and goal for SEB’s automation journey?

Björn Welander: I am a strong believer in “everything that can be automated, should be automated”. Yes, it will take time, in some cases quite a lot of time, but with time we will get there. Automation is actually nothing new, we have been working with this across the financial industry for many years, particularly in the back-office space. However, recent technological developments have given us new tools to use in our constant automation endeavor.

SEB is investing substantially in automating processes end-to-end to give our clients a fast and qualitative experience when interacting with the bank. The impact we are looking for is basically the same today as ten or twenty years ago, i.e. faster and more efficient processing with higher quality. However, the requirements from clients, predominantly relating to speed and digitalization, have never been as demanding as they are today, so the need for automation is becoming more important than ever.


Journal: What does it take to achieve automation and what hurdles do firms meet?

Björn Welander: In theory, it is fairly easy to create an automated process; all you need to do is to digitalize your data, to standardize your processes and the business rules that govern them. In reality, we all know this is far from easy. Data is often not standardized across the market, exceptions are numerous and require human knowledge and experience to sort out.

Consequently, a key prerequisite for automation is standardized and predictable processes. In many areas, we are already there, although maybe not across the whole market. For instance, SWIFT is a natural way of communication in the industry, although SWIFT formats are standardized it does not mean that everyone is using them in the same way. Such situations are creating quite a challenge when trying to automate processes that require input from many counterparties, like corporate actions processes.

In general, connectivity across systems and entities is a key enabler for automation. Being able to connect different counterparties fast and efficient despite different technologies and communication forms will create a competitive advantage. Therefore, we need to continue on the path where we can learn to interpret data in different formats, with slightly different content and quality in an automated way. This is where machine learning will play an important role going forward.


Journal: Does automation create particular hurdles and hold particular potential in certain areas?

Björn Welander: A truly non-standardized area is the realm of alternative investments, by definition these are everything but standardized. Thus, automation and STP present a humungous challenge, bordering the impossible. To fantasize about standardization in the alternative investments space is probably in vain, however, artificial intelligence and machine learning can play a key role in automating alternative investments processing. The alternative investments area lies very close to the heart of SEB, and we are already experimenting with ways of making these processes less manual and more automated. Here, artificial intelligence and various digital enablers open interesting opportunities.


Journal: Is automation only about technology – what about the people involved in the automation journey?

Björn Welander: When organizations talk about automation one must understand that they are really talking about people. Because in order to succeed with our automation ambitions, we need people! People who can design and implement the automation. People who can monitor the automated processes and handle the exceptions. People who can adapt the automated processes to new client requirements as well as changing regulations. In short: we need people!


Journal: The changes brought about by automation must present challenges as well as opportunities not only from a business perspective but also from a workforce perspective?

Björn Welander: In general, my experience is that employees are very excited about participating in the design and implementation of automated processes. I mean, who does not want to get rid of boring and repetitive tasks to be able to focus on more value-added and interesting work? All of which is of course beneficial both for the client, the company – and for the individual employee.

At the same time, moving from simpler to more complex tasks means that employees must embark on a knowledge journey, and in many cases also a mindset journey. Not only do the employees have to learn the new and often more complex work tasks, but also how to work, and coexist, with all the different automation tools out there.

Work in the back office of the future will consist of much less repetitive work and much more problem solving. Basically, when there is an exception in the automated process, you will have two tasks to perform; 1) fix the exception, and 2) reconfigure the system, data, input, process, etc., so that this particular exception will not happen again. This requires building new competences among back office staff, but even more important is taking a new approach towards back office work.


Journal: What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities going forward?

Björn Welander: There are of course fantastic opportunities in the new technologies that are becoming available to us at an ever-increasing pace. Things like robotics have become standard in most of our process flows, and artificial intelligence and other digital enablers are increasing their capabilities by the minute, creating lots of interesting opportunities to increase process efficiencies and quality in our client deliveries.

The back-office employee of the future will have a more technology-oriented profile with a profound knowledge of the financial markets, in order to cope with much more advanced problem solving and process automation. Back-office staff will not only need to understand advanced automation tools, but they will also need to be able to change and configure the automation tools. The era when the IT department programmed new requirements into the systems will soon be behind us. In the future, systems will be fully configurable, scriptable, AI-friendly, and open to pseudo code. And the people doing the process configuration and constant adaptions to client requirements will be back-office staff. All dressed in a new competence suite!