The innovation equation: a banking perspective on balancing tech and talent

The relationship between emerging technology and talent is complicated, and leaders must think carefully about how they move forward, according to a panel of experts

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With the dawn of new technologies such as generative AI, sometimes it can feel like opportunities are endless, and sometimes it can feel like the world is heading into an episode of Black Mirror. Organisations need to find a balance between taking advantage of new technologies while also ensuring human connections, skills and experiences shine through. 

Raconteur spoke to a panel of banking leaders across people, product and tech roles to explore how one industry is tackling this technology and talent balancing act.

Responding to tech developments

When it comes to integrating new technology, Arthur Leung, chief product officer at Shawbrook Bank, says that working in partnership with the firm’s CTO has been crucial. “We are completely aligned on our technology strategy,” he says. “The CTO has put the foundation in place and so I can now bring in new talent and build on top of that. The core is so important and if you don’t have that foundation right, you’re playing around the edges.”

Johnnie Ball, chief data officer at OakNorth, generally agrees about building core infrastructure. However, he points out that generative AI has changed the game. “Gen AI tools are so accessible. And yes, if you want to build your own products you need the infrastructure, but if you want to use it for simpler tasks, such as composing sales emails, they can be done with absolutely zero infrastructure.”

If you don’t have that foundation right, you’re playing around the edges

While the opportunities with such an accessible technology are exciting, Victoria Newton, chief product officer at Engine by Starling, cautions that organisations need to think carefully about clear use cases and the technology they are using to deliver. “We can play with these new technologies, but what are we actually trying to achieve?” she says. “For example, Starling was founded to revolutionise banking and make it better for customers. Now, with Engine, we are trying to help other banks around the world achieve this vision with technology. If you’re aligned to a vision like that and you can explain why you’re using these new tools, then it’s easier to show the impact on your customers and get buy-in from your employees.”

Prajval Dsilva, head of special projects at Allica Bank, says that considering use cases carefully was vital at his organisation. “We settled on a use case where we make the lives of our employees better,” he says. “The use case we developed is for the ops team, who might need to look up a process very quickly. So all the process documents have generative AI layered on top to help them find answers fast.”

Bringing employees along on the journey

Ball says that OakNorth is largely letting employees decide how to use generative AI tools, though he notes that the exception is engineering and product teams, as well as anything related to customer data, where there need to be more restrictions. When it comes to the wider business, “there was no individual, and certainly no one on the senior leadership team, who had a holistic view of how to make every day-to-day process more efficient,” he says. “So we wanted to empower individuals. We wanted to open it up and say, here’s a tool, find a way to apply it to make your life better.”

Anne-Marie Lister, chief people officer at Atom Bank, adds that allowing employees to experiment is key to skills development and talent attraction. “It helps people start to learn the technology and that opportunity to learn might also be what attracts others to the organisation,” she says. “I believe in allowing people to find the answers themselves, because you’re never going to have all of the answers, no matter where you sit in the organisation.”

Leung adds that leaders need to reassure employees that their roles are safe and that technology will enhance their jobs. “If you say, we’re not looking to get rid of people, we’re looking to help you focus on high-value tasks and do things more efficiently, so that you can have better customer interactions and relationships, it will help get people on board,” he says. “And I think people have to experience a technology to not be scared of it.”

Hiring and inspiring tech talent

Karl Porter, director of recruitment at Metro Bank, says: “I think one of the bigger challenges at the minute around generative AI is how to make the right decisions about the talent that comes into the organisation. You talk to providers, then you have a follow-up conversation three months later and the world’s changed.”

He adds that emerging technologies are now also helping candidates through applications and interviews, which can make it difficult to assess their skills accurately. However, Dsilva points out that the appropriateness of using generative AI tools is role-specific, adding that for some roles he’s more impressed by those who take the initiative to use the technology and learn. “I would say that it’s not a negative for certain, it can prompt a certain mindset that you want within your organisation,” he says. With any use of generative AI tools though, employees must understand the limitations.

Porter says that the other hiring issue he sees is generational. Those further into their careers may not grasp new technologies so quickly but will likely have important soft skills, whereas young digital native graduates may pick up new technologies faster but haven’t yet developed crucial workplace skills.

Ball points out that this soft skills gap may widen as technology starts to replace roles that allow graduates to learn on the job. “The intern to junior analyst role is becoming obsolete,” he says. “Our credit team, our legal team and our engineering team all now use generative AI to support those areas that these individuals would have historically developed through. So, an important role for us will be in training these people up to use these tools effectively and catalyse their progress in a way they wouldn’t have been able to previously. AI won’t replace people. People who use AI will replace those who don’t, so we want to make sure our team feel confident and empowered with these tools.”

We’ve got to have one eye on the future in terms of creating diverse, innovative organisations

Lister adds a note of caution. “It’s something to be mindful of in terms of the diversity in the sector, or lack of,” she says. “I’m passionate about opening up opportunities for people who may never have thought about a career in the industry and may not have specific skills. We’ve got to have one eye on the future in terms of creating diverse, innovative organisations.” This means continuing to invest in junior roles that allow room for development.

Matt Holt, chief strategy officer at Digitas, points to Digitas’s partnership with Next Tech Girls, an organisation that helps develop the next generation of female technology talent. He says: “It’s been very helpful with entry talent but also, from a strategic standpoint, as a research tool to understand how they’re using technology.” He points out that exposure to different perspectives and the next generation of tech users is so important across industries.

Ball wonders if perhaps the learning curve isn’t as steep as it seems if younger generations are already picking up new technologies in their daily lives. “Maybe a junior accountant, for example, no longer needs to do the grunt work. Maybe they can skip some levels in the same way as, back in the day, pocket calculators or Excel changed roles.”

Building a culture of innovation

To future-proof any organisation, a culture of innovation is vital. Newton explains that the culture of Starling, and its tech subsidiary Engine, revolves around the engineers first, giving them a level of freedom in their work. She says that, while this gives leadership less control of the output, that innovation culture is crucial to protect. “If you constantly keep telling people ‘no, don’t do this or that’, you’re killing innovation and velocity. Because of our approach, we get the best engineers and we have extremely low turnover.”

Lister agrees that trusting and respecting employees is vital. “Being able to go about your job in a way that you want to will get the best results, whether it be innovation through engineering or having a great conversation with the customer.”

“Culture is a top-down shift,” adds Porter. “It involves every single person and it is about a growth mindset and being forward thinking. Trying to embed that if you don’t already have it is really difficult.”

Holt agrees and adds that a shared goal across the organisation is vital to drive innovation. “Transformation is hard, right? It’s change management and trying to bring people along,” he says. “It’s a combination of people, process and tools. But for me, that shared vision is really powerful.”

While the innovation equation may not be a simple one to solve, it’s clear that organisations that get the foundations right, and stay open to experimentation while being transparent and collaborative with employees, stand the best chance of successful cultural and digital transformation.

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