You can’t create a digital vision if you don’t have leaders who understand digital, says Chris Skinner, who adds that it’s “a disaster waiting to happen”.

It’s intriguing to find more and more banks creating digital heads. I meet them regularly: I’m the digital head of retail banking; I’m the digital head of retail business banking; I’m the digital head of the investment bank; I’m the digital head of our transaction banking business; I’m the digital head of our commercial bank; and so on. You get the idea. Lots and lots of digital heads, but who’s the daddy?

Often, there isn’t one. Often, the digital heads report into the line of business head and there’s no coordination. Usually, these digital heads are mainly given the objective of creating the digital project to add the digital front-end to the analogue pig (reference earlier blog).

I know I’m being harsh, but I keep coming back to the real issue here, which is leadership. Banks are led by bankers, and that’s the problem. Most banks have zero technology professionals in the C-Suite. As a result, they think digital is a project. Each line of business creates the digital project and gives the digital task to a newly appointed digital head. The digital head builds a team and gets a budget and, once the digital stuff is done, is promoted and things go back to normal. That’s not digital, guys. That’s just tinkering.

The internet age

Digital is all about rethinking the bank for the internet age. It’s changing the business model and culture of the bank to be built around digital platforms. It’s reimagining how to offer finance through technology.

How can you build a bank based on technology if your C-Suite is populated by people who don't understand technology? Quote by Chris Skinner in BankNXT.Bankers think of this the other way around. They think of how to apply finance to technology rather than how to apply technology to finance. I’ve touched on all of these things before, but it’s frustrating that the message doesn’t seem to be getting through. It’s not getting through because the leaders of banks understand risk, regulations, compliance, accounting, ledgers and money, but they don’t understand technology.

How can you build a bank based on technology if your C-Suite is populated by people who don’t understand technology? This is a fundamental question, and is why you have so many heads of digital, yet no digital head. A digital head would be the CEO. In fact, I often ask these digital heads who they report to and they tell me it’s the COO or CIO. It should to a CDO who reports to the CEO. The C-Suite should have at least a quarter of its team populated by people with a professional technology career. Right now, almost 80% of banks have no one in the C-Suite of such calibre. This is a disaster waiting to happen, especially considering there’s a five-year change window to get the bank fit for the next decade, at most.

So when I meet most heads of digital, I sympathise, because I know they’re frustrated. Most of them are frustrated that digital is being dealt with as a project rather than as a change programme, and most of them are frustrated that digital is being delegated rather than led.

What should you do?

Well, if you cannot change the management team of the bank and truly believe the future is digital, you must leave the bank and find a firm where the vision is there. The vision will come from a bank or startup that has technology leadership. You cannot create a digital vision if you don’t have leaders who understand digital. In fact, again, the reason why most bank leaders avoid changing core systems is that they don’t have vision and so can duck it. Most CIOs are not there to give vision. They are there to keep the lights on and maintain the system (especially as 80% of their budget is spent on just that). So who’s going to create a digital technology vision if there’s only bankers in the room and no one to challenge them?

No one, and in many of the banks who are talking digital, it is just that. They are just talking. They’ve said how important it is, they’ve appointed some digital heads to lead digital projects, and they’ve made the right moves. Enough said and done? Nah, it’s just lip service. These are the bank leaders talking the talk but not walking the walk.

I’ve said it. Sorry for the rant, but hey, this is decades in the making, and for a bank leader to still not get it is like my poor dead fish yesterday. After all, a fish rots from the head, in case you didn’t know.

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– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here. Image: asbesto_cemento, Shutterstock.com

About the author

Chris Skinner

Chris Skinner is an independent commentator on the financial markets through the Finanser, and chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club, which he founded in 2004. He is an author of numerous books covering everything from European regulations in banking through to the credit crisis, to the future of banking.

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