By establishing analytics as a true business discipline, banks can grasp the enormous potential.

Consider three recent examples of the power of analytics in banking:

To counter a shrinking customer base, a European bank tried a number of retention techniques focusing on inactive customers, but without significant results. Then it turned to machine-learning algorithms that predict which currently active customers are likely to reduce their business with the bank. This new understanding gave rise to a targeted campaign that reduced churn by 15 percent.

A US bank used machine learning to study the discounts its private bankers were offering to customers. Bankers claimed that they offered them only to valuable ones and more than made up for them with other, high-margin business. The analytics showed something different: patterns of unnecessary discounts that could easily be corrected. After the unit adopted the changes, revenues rose by 8 percent within a few months.

A top consumer bank in Asia enjoyed a large market share but lagged behind its competitors in products per customer. It used advanced analytics to explore several sets of big data: customer demographics and key characteristics, products held, credit-card statements, transaction and point-of-sale data, online and mobile transfers and payments, and credit-bureau data. The bank discovered unsuspected similarities that allowed it to define 15,000 microsegments in its customer base. It then built a next-product-to-buy model that increased the likelihood to buy three times over.

Results like these are the good news about analytics. But they are also the bad news. While many such projects generate eye-popping returns on investment, banks find it difficult to scale them up; the financial impact from even several great analytics efforts is often insignificant for the enterprise P&L.; Some executives are even concluding that while analytics may be a welcome addition to certain activities, the difficulties in scaling it up mean that, at best, it will be only a sideline to the traditional businesses of financing, investments, and transactions and payments.