There's another way to beat big banks at tech
The future for many banks appears highly uncertain as the pace of technology-driven change in the industry accelerates, creating new risks, opportunities and competitors for legacy players.
This means mounting pressure for banks to digitally transform to avoid falling victim to this pace of change.
This urgency to transform drove the recently announced merger between the regional banks SunTrust and BB&T, the largest bank merger in a decade. As BB&T’s chief executive told the media, “we face a fundamental choice — disrupt our business or be disrupted.” The two organizations said that the move would allow them to invest an extra $100 million in new technology, including new cybersecurity, mobile and automation systems.
However, this also highlights the struggles inherent in digital transformation for most banks with limited resources. A $100 million investment in new technology is small compared to the many billions that the largest financial institutions devote to their technology budgets. Converting the final merged organizations of BB&T and SunTrust into a digital-first organization will cost far more than $100 million.
The vast majority of banks are in similar shape — they don’t have billions to set aside for new technology investments and will need to be more strategic and stretch their dollars further to achieve digital transformation. They must leverage the advantages inherent in being a smaller organization to be more agile and drive cultural change faster than larger competitors can.
Beyond technology investments, digital transformation requires a full overhaul of an organization’s everyday culture. Many in financial services already recognize this, but most have been slow to take major action. One survey released last year found that 71% of industry respondents reported changing their people strategy to reflect the skills and organizational structures necessary to succeed in a digital future. However, only 25% said they had changed their people strategies to a “significant” extent.
Cultural transformation will look somewhat different at each individual financial institution, but the goal should be the same — to foster a workforce and workplace culture that can thrive in today’s world of unending and uncertain technological change. For most banks, that will require a number of steps.
Those will include designing and implementing new training programs to boost employee digital know-how and eliminating organizational silos to gain a full view of the customer — a foundational element to digital-first businesses.
The process will also require banks to rethink recruitment strategies, employee benefits and incentives to attract and keep new types of talent. For instance, giving candidates sample assignments that reflect the challenges they’ll be working on in their roles could be more effective in attracting and assessing younger tech-savvy talent than traditional interviews and questionnaires.
In addition, banks will need to promote a culture where experimentation is encouraged by using agile methodologies, design thinking and more cross-business collaboration. For many banks, this will run counter to risk-averse traditional thinking. Extensive workshops and training programs will be needed to help staff acclimate to the new way of doing business.
Bank executives should also consider freeing people up to work on big, interesting questions by leveraging automation to handle the mundane. Additionally, banks will need to ensure that employees understand the value of this automation to avoid resentment driven by workers’ fear that they could become obsolete.
Successfully implementing all of these types of initiatives will be a tough journey, but one that will be much tougher in larger, unwieldy organizations. Additionally, banks can potentially accelerate this transformation through so-called parallel banks — digital-only brands that many banks have launched in recent years to appeal to younger customers.
Many banks have regarded these digital brands as simple marketing ventures that emphasize their mobile-centric customer experience. However, these parallel banks are often tied back to their parent organizations legacy systems and older processes. In other words, it’s mostly the same bank (without the branches) wrapped in a new marketing image.
This approach fails to recognize the benefits that launching a parallel bank can deliver. If it is untethered from the parent organization’s older systems and operations, a parallel bank provides a sandbox to test out new technologies, partners, and strategies, and reimagine old processes. That includes experimenting with new talent strategies and organizational structures to foster a digital-first culture. It also goes well beyond that to developing relationships with new startups, working with emerging technologies, and designing new employee and customer experiences.
In this role, the parallel, digital brand can be given the freedom to fail fast, and learnings can then be applied to the parent organization’s own digital transformation. This strategy can help illuminate some of the know-how banks will need to execute the overwhelming changes required for digital transformation, helping reduce the risk (and costs) inherent in those changes while also accelerating them at the same time.
Such know-how will be invaluable for banks that don’t have millions to set aside for digital transformation and will need to use every advantage possible to stay competitive in the future. Moving quickly to foster cultural transformation and using a parallel brand to quickly experiment and iterate both offer opportunities to outpace larger, less nimble rivals.