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The future of finance is digital – COOs weigh in

Building on the results of a survey of over 250 COOs in 15 countries conducted at the end of last year, AsianInvestor spoke to COOs at leading firms about how their remit and priorities have changed following the pandemic – and whether that means broadening the scope in their involvement in initiatives such as change management and technology implementation.
The future of finance is digital – COOs weigh in
David Ng, COO
CSOP Asset Management Limited

Today’s COOs in the financial services industry may find themselves responsible for front, middle and back office activities, as well as being charged with leading digital transformation and culture change initiatives. While most literature paints a narrow definition of what a COO is responsible for, perceptions are changing. “I think it’s more of an art than a science,” says Ng. “From my perspective, I see the role of the COO as the glue that binds the entire organisation; and its definition and scope will adapt to the context of the organisation,” noting such leaders should possess a good grasp of strategy, organisational processes, and be able to orchestrate the firm to execute the vision of the senior management team.


Sam Ahmed, Managing Director & COO
Treasury & Markets
DBS Bank

In the wake of Covid-19, businesses have been forced to leap into action in a way that would have been impossible just a decade or more ago. The rapid transition to working and meeting clients from home – with up to 90% of some workforces making the transition in as little as three weeks - means that technology has and will continue to play a greater role. “I think what COVID has really taught us is that business needs to continue irrespective of people being displaced,” says Ahmed. “As a result, we have accelerated our digital initiatives such as algorithmic model trading, hyper personalisation and auto pricing scripts for sales as well as robotics automation solutions for our middle to back workflows.”

Bonnie Lo, Partner & COO (Hong Kong)
NewQuest Capital Partners

For smaller organisations, such as NewQuest, the role means being a jack-of-all-trades, in an environment where transformation is easier to achieve due to higher levels of agility, but for which there are additional challenges brought by reduced scale – particularly when it comes to allocating resources for risk management and technology infrastructure. “Sometimes we do rely on outside specialists to support us, because of the small size of team that we have,” says Lo. Her team’s rapid growth, but small size, makes sourcing the right levels of specialization a challenge.



Simeon Zone, COO,
Head of Investment & Fund Services Operations Asia
BNP Paribas Securities Services

While all agree that the business landscape has fundamentally changed following Covid-19, the fundamental capabilities required of the COOs is as clear as ever. Anything beyond business-as-usual needs to be on their radar, to allow COOs to proactively set their focus on both controlling risks and leveraging opportunities. “The definition of the role of the COO hasn’t changed – because in my view, the COO has always been someone who is expected to make sure the business is up and running,” says Zone - which means that being quick on your feet, especially during extraordinary events, must be hard-coded into the DNA of every operational leader, regardless of the circumstances. “As COOs, we drive the change in the organisation and also adapt it to our clients’ needs and constantly evolving market environment.” 

Zone says the COO role is often not clearly or consistently defined; depending greatly on country and region, company size or culture. Looking back on the last 15 years, many functions have been added to the remit, such as performance management. “The role has evolved over time,” he says. “We have been seeing a clear additional remit under the COO’s role… and it’s not always easy to find where the boundaries are.”

Preparing for a digital future

While technology has enabled a nearly seamless transition to remote and agile working, a more comprehensive digital transformation means that middle office operations will increasingly have functions that will be automated. “The post trade workflows that are identified as mundane and repetitive work can be replicated by RPA,” says Ahmed. “The goal is really to identify which tasks can actually be done by robots, and thereby allow (human) resources to upskill to higher value-added functionalities.” 

Even as firms prepare for a digital future, it is important to remember that technology is only a tool – albeit a powerful one – for delivering on business needs, which are driven by the market rather than technical capabilities. In a world that is constantly changing, maintaining a weather eye on longer-term objectives is critical. “Firms go through different transformations in different stages, so that means keeping up with the stage of the firm - moving forward as one definitely requires meticulous planning,” says Lo, noting the crisis has brought unique challenges, such as integrating new team members when there is no one in the office and travel is not possible.

While COVID-19 may have helped highlight the urgency of the need for transformation, it still takes both time and clear conviction from operational leaders - especially in large organisations with multiple hierarchies. “For change to happen effectively inside an organisation – particularly transformative change – it must start with leadership,” says Ng. “It shouldn’t take a crisis.”  

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