Is it a financial services company, a technology-enhanced bank, or a technology company appearing in institutional clothing?
The answer, according to CEO of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia Ian Narev, is that CBA is a "technology-enabled financial services company".
At the opening of the bank's new "innovation centre" in its Sydney premises — a space intended to act in a similar way to incubators and accelerators seen in the startup scene to create new products and services in collaboration with customers, startups, and industry — Narev told ZDNet that banking has experienced a recent reminder not to stray too far from its core competencies.
"I remember in the mid-2000s, there was this whole thing that retail banks aren't banks anymore, they're retailers, and guess what? There was a financial crisis," he said. "We were reminded, actually, we're banks.
"We are front and centre a financial services company, with all the customer focus, risk management, etc, that that entails — but within that, technology is an absolute core skill of what we need to be able to do, as core as any of our other skills."
Narev echoed comments made in August last year that with the bank's core banking modernisation project complete — a six-year project that involved 1,500 full-time staff members and a migration of 12 million customers — the bank could increase its pace of innovation.
"The great news for us is that the one big spend, which was over AU$1 billion, was getting the core systems done," he said. "The remainder to do is much snappier, much faster innovation, which is quicker.
"It can either fail quicker or succeed quicker, and results in a much steadier stream of innovation to the market."
One product that has taken longer to hit the market than expected is CBA's Albert, an Android-powered point-of-sale terminal that was expected to launch in early 2013.
"Albert took longer than we thought it would, absolutely, as leading-edge innovation often does," Narev said.
"When you are dealing with a leading-edge piece of hardware, you cannot compromise security, and little things like getting security levels on the glass as good as they needed to be took time.
"In the meantime, interestingly, no one has beaten us to the market, and as these get rolled out later this year, early next year, they are still going to be market-leading innovations, even though they took longer than we expected."
Narev said that CBA sees the need to combine leading technology and banking as a matter of life and death.
"The competitive environment is getting more and more serious every day," he said.
"Sometimes, you don't need to be the market leader; being a fast follower on certain applications and technology is fine, that's a big part of our view.
"Our strong belief is that if you are leading edge with technology, and you retain all your skills and understand how to manage finances and risk, that combination is a real source of innovative advantage."