HSBC is working hard to hire the best digital staff away from companies like Google, and is embarking on a top-down education program to deal with the threats and opportunities technology brings to the industry.
The big banks are currently locked in an arms race with the biggest technology companies in the world to find the best tech talent. At SAP's Financial Services Forum in London yesterday, Mark Adams, head of human resources at HSBC UK, explained how the bank has been running training for the C-suite to better embrace the "challenges and opportunities disruption brings".
Adams spoke about the importance of building a more tech-literate culture at the bank, starting with a training program for executives and managers the bank has been running for a year or so with the Singularity University.
HSBC is also changing the way it hires top executives. "It is not enough to look at a CV and say they are good because they have experience doing things in a traditional way. You want to challenge yourself and ask how good they are at understanding the opportunities and threats and the concepts of open banking that are coming, and that is very different from three years ago," Adams said.
HSBC has been busy building a dedicated digital team mobile and internet banking, primarily under the leadership of ex-Googler Josh Bottomley since 2013. Adams says that this now-700-strong team is made up of "people who wanted to be the digital experts within the bank, who understand customer journeys and technology. They aren't necessarily the sort of people we traditional employed".
This brings challenges in terms of attracting and retaining talent, beyond the high salaries a bank like HSBC can offer. That is especially the case when "these guys want to come in and fix things in a week and we probably haven't got the committee meeting in for a couple of months", as Adams observed. "So it is a different way of thinking how to integrate these people into the bank."
Adams said that he has seen "people who work for these highly innovative companies, like Google and others, actually quite like the challenge of coming to work for an HSBC. What they are saying is, frankly, 'this is the biggest challenge I will have, and if I can fix it for you guys then my CV will be sorted forever'. So the core skills of how to be a banker don't go away, you still have to have that skill set, but now there is a different skillset we need in terms of what you need to think about from a digital, innovation perspective".
This approach extends all the way down to branch level, where HSBC wants its staff to be less specialized (like a teller, for example), something it calls the "universal banker". Branch staff is expected to push digital channels over traditional channels and to educated customers on how to do things online.
Ironically this amounts to branch staff becoming agents of their own downfall. I recently saw this in a Nationwide building society branch, where I was encouraged to do a BACS transfer myself online and the staff walked me through the process, instead of performing the transaction for me. I will now do all future BACS transfers from the comfort of my own home.
Adams also admits that the HSBC retail bank lacks diversity at board level, not just in terms of age, gender and race, but also in terms of technical literacy and openness to innovation.
"This is a personal comment but yes, within that five-year window I would expect to see some changes [at board level]," Adams said. "I would hope that when I am sitting in the boardroom at the retail bank that we would have a more diverse, innovation and customer experience set of people, more comfortable working at a different cycle speed.
"For me, it's not a nice to have, I think if we don't start to see those improvements in five years then we will be behind."