Gulf Bank, one of Kuwait's major lending institutions, embarked on its data transformation journey in February 2021 with the appointment of its first Chief Data Officer, Mai Alowaish. Alowaish is a seasoned digital strategy expert, boasting over 18 years of experience in information technology and data analysis within the banking and e-commerce industries.
Her expertise extends internationally, having spent a decade working in the United States with Google partners, providing consultancy services on Google's data and analytics solutions.
In a recent conversation with Ben Blanquera, Vice President at Rackspace Technology and CDO Magazine Global Editorial Board Member, Alowaish reflected on the initial two years as the company’s very first CDO. From her experience, she emphasized the significance of a data-driven culture, the launch of the data ambassador program at Gulf Bank and prioritizing data quality as the starting point for any successful transformation initiative.
- Digital transformation is about people — without them, transformation can’t succeed.
- Understand the significance of data — it’s not just about report generation, it’s about data-driven insights and analytics.
- Digital transformation hinges not only on technological progress — success is attained through a cohesive team effort and company-wide buy-in.
- Don’t get caught up in the allure of cutting-edge technology or AI — unless it provides a clear solution to a problem, don’t invest in it.
- You can’t do AI if you don’t have data literacy — it’s like running before learning to walk.
Rising to the challenge: from e-commerce to building a data-driven bank culture
As Alowaish geared up to step into her role as Gulf Bank's first Chief Data Officer, she understood the crucial importance of aligning with the bank's strategic plan. As one of Kuwait's largest banks, it boasts over 50 branches nationwide, catering to a diverse customer base that includes both retail and corporate clients, as well as treasury services.
The primary objective was to carry out a thorough digital transformation and provide data-driven customer experiences, positioning Gulf Bank as the "bank of the future."
Assuming the duties of a first-generation CDO presented several challenges, especially in a banking environment where the role was still relatively new to many. Alowaish reflected on the experiences of other first-generation CDOs who faced similar circumstances.
“With no reference point to look back to in the banking industry, it felt like we were pioneers in establishing the data office,” said Alowaish. However, meeting other CDOs from e-commerce backgrounds, some of whom had worked with Google partners, reassured her that she was on the right path. The data-centric approach which she employed in e-commerce to drive business success became a valuable asset in her new role.
The CDO journey at Gulf Bank: taking small steps toward success
In the early stages, Alowaish says she collaborated with management to understand their expectations for data initiatives. As with most digital transformations, management’s initial focus was on data science and AI, but she emphasized the need for a more comprehensive roadmap to reach those goals.
This started by laying the foundation of data governance and setting up data lakes to support advanced analytics and AI endeavors. The objective was to move beyond traditional end-of-day and end-of-month reports that lacked real-time insights and instead empower the bank to make data-driven decisions through data monetization and in-depth analysis.
During this phase she engaged with various teams, from business leaders to employees across departments, to instill a data driven culture. Throughout this transformative process, Alowaish adopted the hashtag “#datadriven” across all the bank’s business units, highlighting the importance of leveraging data for decision-making.
Drawing on her experience from the e-commerce industry, she was able to demonstrate how data-driven practices had significantly impacted success in that domain, inspiring the bank to embrace a similar approach.
In the initial nine to 12 months, her primary focus was on extensive education and training at all levels. Alowaish dedicated herself to teaching employees and analysts within the bank, while also working closely with management to showcase the potential of data and its transformative impact on decision-making.
The emphasis during the first year was conveying the true value of data, breaking the notion that it merely meant generating reports, and highlighting the importance of data-driven insights and analytics.
Progressing into years two and three, Alowaish witnessed a positive shift, with more individuals embracing a data-driven mindset. A defining moment came when she saw one of her bank employees actively using the dashboards they had built for analyzing 20 years of market data.
The employee was making critical decisions based on the insights provided by the dashboard before booking a deal. Witnessing such practical applications was a clear indication that her campaign was having its intended effect.
Alowaish says the bank continues to reap tangible benefits from the process she put in place, with a growing number of individuals and teams adopting data-driven practices and turning the vision into a reality.
Charting the path to digital transformation: “Sales Package 101”
When Alowaish was announced as the bank’s first CDO, she created a folder on her computer labeled "Sales Package" because she recognized the need to sell the importance of data to executives and top-line managers. According to Alowaish, “It was crucial to gain their buy-in and commitment to invest time and effort in data-driven initiatives.”
She prepared pitch decks tailored for executives, highlighting the strategic value of data and its impact on the organization's success. Similarly, she said she developed presentations for top-line managers to demonstrate how data-driven practices could positively impact their daily operations, answering the "What's in it for me?" question.
Empowering data ambassadors: enhancing data quality culture
Alowaish also introduced a "data ambassadors" program – a network of individuals who could spearhead data quality efforts within their respective teams. In a commitment to collective growth, Alowaish promised comprehensive training and support for all participants throughout the journey.
To ensure their enthusiastic participation, she collaborated with human resources to transform the experience into an engaging and rewarding venture. The training and development program for the data ambassadors emphasized the value of continuous learning and skill-building. The academy style program spanned six sessions, covering vital topics such as data quality, data cleansing, automation insights, and quality improvement cycles.
Alowaish said the HR department collaborated closely with the ambassadors, guiding them through multiple sessions and classes, and ensuring they acquired essential knowledge and expertise. To celebrate their achievements and encourage pride in their roles, they organized a graduation party for the ambassadors.
Alongside tangible benefits, the program was infused with fun elements, including exciting giveaways like digital notebooks, further solidifying their sense of belonging and purpose in driving significant change across the bank.
“Equipped with newfound skills, they became enthusiastic advocates, offering data support to their respective units, driving meaningful change, and building trust between managers and employees,” says Alowaish. This concerted effort resulted in transformative progress across all business units.
According to Alowaish, even the most skeptical ambassadors embraced the opportunity for personal empowerment. They realized that data and analytics were not solely the domain of tech experts, but something they could effectively wield on their own. Their newfound insights were carried back to their respective teams, inspiring a culture of data-driven empowerment throughout the bank.
The success of any data or digital transformation program hinges on the fundamental principle of putting people first. Armed with the right mindset and support, and provided with the necessary tools and technology, employees can be empowered to propel data transformation.
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About the Authors
VP - Evangelist and Senior Architect
Ben is VP-Evangelist and Senior Architect with Rackspace Technology. He works with enterprises, architecting solutions to enable them to drive business outcomes through thriving in a multicloud world. He is a 35-year veteran in multiple industries including health care, manufacturing, and technology consulting. Prior to Rackspace, Ben was with Covail, a leading-edge provider of AI/ML and cybersecurity services to Fortune 1000 clients. At Covail, Ben was VP of Delivery and transitioned to VP of Revenue and Client Success. A recognized technology leader, Ben was named a Premier 100 leader by Computerworld. Outside of work, he loves to travel, ride his bike, and spend time with his wife and four daughters. He is an active organizer in the tech community and curates the Central Ohio CIO forum (150+ CIOs) and founded Techlife Columbus. Ben also serves on the Pitch Advisory Board for South by Southwest and the Editorial Board for CDO Magazine.Read more about Ben Blanquera