CIBC’s drive to innovation (Q&A)

Partnership with MaRS means bank can switch from 'Power Points to prototypes'

As Aayaz Pira, vice-president, digital channels at CIBC, admits, it can be hard to innovate inside the walls of a corporate, Power Point-heavy bank environment. The bank’s partnership with Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District could change all that.


CIBC’s Aayaz Pira.

CIBC has partnered with MaRS to create a new corporate innovation hub, allowing teams to work on developing new banking innovations, from mobile and digital to process improvements and future concepts.

The bank will tap into MaRS’ new Financial Technology (FinTech) Cluster—startups that are developing the next generation of tech for finance. The space is expected to open this fall, but the partnership has already produced one product innovation: the CIBC mobile banking Apple Watch app.

Marketing spoke with Pira about the new app and how the partnership with MaRS will help the bank be a leader in the digital space… no suits required.

What are CIBC’s goals in developing a corporate innovation hub at MaRS?

We’re finding that for us to innovate within our corporate environment sometimes proves to be quite challenging. One reason is we’re all focused on the day to day, getting our agenda and our roadmap done. So we said ‘let’s create a special way for our people in an innovative environment to think outside the box.’ We want be more closely connected to some of the challenges our clients are experiencing, as well as bring to life the experiences they’re having outside of our world.

Typically in our walls, we think about our clients from our perspective. But our clients are changing and their expectations of their bank are based on interactions they’re having with other organizations in digital channels. You hear all the classic examples: paying for my coffee from my phone and getting real-time offers from retailers: those expectations are now being put on banks. [Clients are saying], ‘I want to be able to interact with my bank in a way that I interact with other brands.’ So it’s anytime, anywhere, and in an interesting manner. To bring that thinking and do some of that innovation within our walls was hard, so we thought MaRS would be a good environment.

Secondly was the access to some of the high-tech Fintech startups that are at MaRS. They have a fantastic ecosystem of startups, so we thought we could tap into that. Another reason, quite honestly, was access to talent. Imagine us posting a role to say ‘you’re going to be working at CIBC’s innovation lab, which is inside the bank and you’ll wear a suit every day’ versus ‘you’re going to be at MaRS working with some fun, interesting people.’

How will it actually work?

Our model right now is it’s a combination of full-time CIBC [staff] who are put at MaRS for various reasons. One is because they might be subject matter experts in that space. For example, for the Apple Watch, we had someone from CIBC’s business side who understood the business objectives of getting the watch done, complemented with someone from technology who was an Apple developer. And we didn’t just pick anybody. We picked people who we wanted to reward—people who are doing a good job.

But we also complemented that team with co-op [students] because we’re finding that co-ops are a great engine to think outside the box. We look at our clients every day, so let’s bring in some fresh perspectives. So we married those two elements to bring together that innovation team for the watch ‘sprint.’ We talk about things in sprints. Every six weeks we do a new sprint and depending on the focus, we’ll bring in the right mix of business and technology resources.

What was the benefit of working on the Apple Watch app at MaRS?

CIBC - CIBC Announces New Apple Watch AppTypically when we think about doing something for our clients, a lot of the time we’ll do some research and put some Power Points together. [Working at MaRS] really changed the way we thought about what we do… It was switching from Power Points to prototypes.

Without using any of the bank’s actual data and information, we started to tinker with the technology in the simulator and in Apple’s software development kit to understand what is the art of the possible, how does this work, what are our client’s use cases, and bring it to life in a prototype rather than a Power Point document. That allows us to do a few things: one is to sell internally, two is to understand how the technology works, and three is for the technology and business teams to work side by side rather than business just handing something over to technology once we were done putting that Power Point together.

It allowed us to accelerate the way we did it… We skipped that initial ‘should we do this, should we not do it?’ We went straight into the actual simulator and said ‘let’s start building this thing.’

Did that further your decision to have something set up at MaRS on a more permanent basis?

We were already in pilot mode when we were developing [the app], so it did reassure us that we were doing the right thing. But I don’t want to this to be confused with ‘everything we put into the lab is going to be uber successful.’ The lab is not necessarily just bringing things to life that the clients are going to use today. It’s about thinking about the future and us being aware of what the future holds. So it might be working with technologies that aren’t ready for client consumption yet, or we might develop something and it may not work. So we have to number one, look to the future and number two, be ready to fail a bit to show that some things just aren’t going to work. I think that’s part of our learning process in our world of innovation.


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