New Frontiers – How to get involved with innovation in 2018

Innovation is a crucial aspect of the modern world. We’re almost accustomed to the flow of new technologies with the potential to change how we live and work. We know 2018 will bring new ideas, new possibilities, things we can’t fully anticipate yet.

Strictly speaking, innovation is about what we do with those ideas – how we use and apply them to create value in peoples’ lives. If ideas are the running stream, innovation is the watermill.

JohnPaul McKenna

JohnPaul McKenna, Head of Innovation Solutions

It’s exciting, a little daunting, and it’s also a tremendous opportunity to be part of something new.

To find out more about innovation at Ulster Bank, I spoke with JohnPaul McKenna, Head of Innovation Solutions, and he’s kindly agreed to collaborate with us in two articles on this theme.

#1 A big part of innovation is about how we relate to the world around us

‘Just to give a bit of context, I head up the Ulster Bank Innovation Solutions team which was created in 2016 to explore how we can harness new technology and ideas to help our customers and our business. We’re a small team of 7 people, and we’re unique in a lot of ways.

‘Firstly we’re not based in a bank building. We’re co-located in a technology working space in Dublin called Dogpatch Labs which is home to a range of tech focused companies, established businesses and start-ups. It’s a fantastic environment to work in because we get to collaborate with the other companies there, build partnerships, share ideas, and support each other. There’s a special kind of atmosphere, a passion for discovery which is infectious.

“We’re right in the middle of the technology innovation community in Dublin and that gives us a great view of new trends and developments, as well as an opportunity to make our own contribution.”

‘The work we do is experimental. If you view innovation as a funnel we’re right at the start of it, at the research stage. Our job is to identify promising ideas, determine if they’re going to be of use, and then take them through a pilot stage, before passing them on to our change teams to implement.

‘New technology will undoubtedly be an enabler for the bank in the future, but it’s crucial that we have the right environment to experiment and test it safely – that’s where our team comes in.’

#2 Being agile is key

‘Another crucial ingredient is to do with organisational mindsets, and in the past few years we’ve seen exciting change in this respect. We’re much more nimble as a business, more open to trying new things, and we’ve created a culture that really welcomes and encourages innovation.

‘Ulster Bank is a relatively small and close knit business, so it’s not hard to get time with senior leaders to discuss new ideas, and there’s a strong culture of collaboration and openness across all levels.

‘Our Innovation team is a key part of this too. We’re designed to be small and responsive, and we run regular events to enable people to bring new ideas forward and develop as innovators.

‘Perhaps these are indicators of wider cultural currents. I think there’s a growing appreciation that new tech and ideas can come from all kinds of places, and to harness their potential you need to be receptive to that.’

#3 You don’t need to be a technology wiz to get involved

‘One of the events we run every year in April is a hackathon. We set a range of challenges and invite people to come in over a weekend to try and build something to address them.

‘At first it was largely technology people, fintechs and start ups who came along. But in recent years there’s been a much wider pool of people and many of our own staff getting involved.

‘This year we’re building on that by running a programme for people in the bank, so colleagues can pitch an idea and, if it’s selected, they can work with our team to build it out over several weeks. We also have a bank-wide training programme that’s focused on developing innovation and fostering creativity. So whether you’re already working here or looking in from outside with a bright idea, there’s definitely something to get involved in.

‘We’re trying to help people see that innovation isn’t just about technology; it calls for all kinds of skillsets. We actually find lots of great ideas come from people who are working with our customers and see where there’s something we can improve. That’s the point of events like hackathons – they’re ways of bringing creative people together. If you have a great idea, you’ll be able to work with someone with the technical talent to bring it to life.’

#4 What we’ve achieved so far

‘I’ll finish by mentioning two things that I’m especially proud of. Last year we were able to break cover on a project exploring the potential of Blockchain technology, something we delivered in collaboration with several other banks in the Republic of Ireland. We were looking into how we could create a backup payment network for Ireland based on using distributed ledger technology. We were able to put this to the test and show how this technology could be scaled to support our customers and the bank.

‘We’ve also become the first bank in Ireland to launch an open API, allowing us to securely connect and share data with third parties. This is a key part of the Open Banking revolution which will drive greater competition, integrate services, empower customer choice, and allow people to do their banking through their preferred digital channels.

‘These are exciting developments, and one of the interesting things about it is the level of openness and collaboration it calls for. Technology innovation is drawing organisations together and transforming the financial services landscape. We just have to make sure we bring in change safely and with the needs of our customers at the heart of our thinking.’

Explore careers at Ulster Bank today

Interested in getting involved? Look out for more information on this year’s hackathon and channel your creative talents here at Ulster Bank.