“Innovation” is more than just a catchword to Sanjeev Behl – it is fundamental to his role at Citi and to the culture and mind-set change that he is driving across the Asia Treasury and Trade Solutions (TTS) Client Operations and Global Trade Operations teams.
Behl, Citi’s Singapore-based Head of Client Operations for Asia TTS based, says digital innovation is transforming the way the bank serves its trade clients, who include some of the world’s leading importers and exporters. And it is also helping to make jobs in TTS more efficient and interesting.
One particular product – the first of its kind in the banking sector – has put Citi at the cutting edge of trade finance and offers wider potential uses for the firm as a whole: Citi’s OCR for Trade Processing.
OCR (optical character recognition) has been around for a few years as a technology, but Citi has developed it to be used in a whole new way to address a long-standing problem in international trade.
The global import/export business is still heavily paper-based and to support clients, banks have to process document bundles of multiple pages for most trade transactions.
Converting these pages from physical paper into images has traditionally involved “primitive scanning”. Once they were scanned, someone still had to read through them to manually pull out information for customers, or to perform compliance checks.
“When you think how many clients Citi has globally, and how many individual transactions they support, that’s a lot of processing,” adds Behl. “If you wanted to find, for example, the fourth invoice in a document set, you may have to search through multiple and (sometimes) hundreds of pages – nothing was automatically categorised. It was inefficient and time consuming for both employees and clients.”
Citi’s OCR for Trade Processing, which was launched late last year and developed in-house, changes all that. It recognises what each document is, puts it into multiple broad buckets (example: invoices, insurance and shipping), and further organises it into sub-categories – all without human intervention.
Just as importantly, the new system (with the help of some rule-based algorithms) also enables a faster process for ‘sanctions screening’, the previously laborious process of inspecting trade documents for potential breaches of compliance guidelines.
“Until recently, someone would need to manually identify any ‘proper nouns’ (such as countries, companies and people) and then see if they were non-compliant – a sanctioned shipping liner on a US sanctions list, for example,” says Behl.
Citi’s OCR for Trade Processing has now taken over a good part of this work, which has improved the accuracy of the reviews and has freed up time for Citi’s operations employees. The “really innovative” advantage of the system going forward is how it deals with countries, businesses and individuals, highlights Behl. It gives the operator the option of highlighting these words, allowing employees to use a simple ‘click to pick’ function to choose whether they qualify as proper nouns.
“This automatically populates an ever-evolving proper-noun inventory. And over time, the artificial intelligence capability we’ve built into the system will use this to recognise more and more nouns, with a decreasing need for human involvement,” explains Behl.
“End-to-end automated transaction flow is our objective in trade finance. In other words: making things speedier and simpler,” he adds. “Given that trade is so paper intensive, it’s vital for us as a Bank that we digitize paper in a much more effective way.”
The bank is now looking to expand the system beyond trade. “It has potential applications in all areas of banking where physical documents are still involved. The next step is to see how we can leverage it for use in payments.”
Citi’s OCR for Trade Processing was designed – and continues to be improved – as a collaborative effort between the bank’s TTS Operations and Technology teams globally.
Behl days: “Working together across the world, we’ve managed to digitise some key priority areas for us, leveraging on advances of technology and innovation. This has resulted in more efficient and productive ways of working both for us internally, as well as improved the speed at which we can serve our clients. We're constantly evolving and are excited about where the latest innovative technology can take us.”