FinTechAutomationAutomation makes people more important

Automation makes people more important

HSBC recently published findings revealing that while technologies like robotics top their spending plans, firms are now prioritizing investment in the wellbeing and future skills of their people. The Global Treasurer spoke to Stuart Nivison, Global Head of Client Network Banking at HSBC about the survey findings and what it means for treasury teams.

Technology investment and skills are top business priorities for organizations looking to grow, according to a new survey by HSBC.

As we discuss in our news story on the findings from the Navigator: Made for the Future survey of over 2,500 companies in 14 countries and territories, 34% of decision-makers think their technological focus will ‘totally’ change over the coming 24 months, with a further 45% expecting ‘slight’ change. What’s more, over half (55%) plan to invest more in research and development in order to drive productivity.

One of the most surprising findings from the survey was the number of companies and the degree of disruption that they were expecting from technology and innovation, according to Stuart Nivison, Global Head of Client Network Banking at HSBC.

“We see disruption and radical changes to business models frequently,” says Stuart. “What I call accidental exporters are a good example. We have a company banking with us where, for many years, they’ve been manufacturing and selling regionally. What they find is that their buyers have started to put pressure on them to put the goods online so they can order it on the internet instead of having to phone up or write orders in. Suddenly, they’re getting orders from Vietnam and Malaysia! “Within a couple of years their whole business model has changed, and they need a whole different skillset. Suddenly they’re dealing with instant payments, cross-border transactions and so on. This is the unintended consequence of technology.

“What really surprised me from the survey was the degree of change that’s expected. A third of respondents said they expected their business to radically change over the next two years as a result of innovation and technology. Things like artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics and virtual reality, as well as 5G and particularly the Internet of Things. This is not a fringe element of a small number of companies; it was a significant number of them.”

Automation and people go hand-in-hand

The other big surprise to come out of the HSBC Navigator: Made for the Future report was a highly optimistic outlook about skills and technology – a change from the often negative and worrisome feeling around tech-driven change. This optimism is perhaps driven by organisations realising that if true transformation is to happen, skills and upskilling are just as important as the investment in tech itself.

“There was definitely a degree of optimism about the results,” explains Stuart. “While innovation and technology are driving this optimism, investment in training and the wellbeing of people followed closely in second place.

“It’s an interesting one because your immediate thought is, oh with automation people are going to be less important, but that wasn’t the message that we were getting. What they were saying was that yes, the technology was going to have a positive impact on productivity. Yes, it was going to have a positive impact on customer experience and that it’d be good for their business. But the roles of the people that they had were going to change, it was going to make them more value-add, more interesting but, if they were going to have people that were to be effective in that environment, and if they were to get the people they need, they’d have to invest in people.”

Indeed, 76% said they’d need to upskill their people and 52% were going to increase the money they spent on training. And this isn’t just basic training; future digital skills dominated.

Stuart says: “If you’re an employee you’re probably going to be doing different things, but you’re not going to be doing the more mundane, repetitive tasks which frankly can be automated. With AI and the likes, you don’t need to worry about mundane, repetitive jobs. But when you do have human intervention it has to be value-added – things like emotional intelligence or highly technical analysis come into play, and that’s where treasurers will have a clear role to play.

“As a result, treasury team leaders need to become a bit cleverer about how they retain and develop staff, because they will be less of a commodity and more something you need to invest in.”

Tipping point

One of the reasons why the importance of skills development made its way to the top of this survey, according to Stuart, is that finance teams are reaching tipping point with technology.

“My sense is that you’re getting to a tipping point with technologies such as AI, where they are ceasing to be things of the future and they’re becoming very real and very usable. People can see how they can start to adapt their business – and indeed treasury – model. Not so long ago, whenever you had something like artificial intelligence you would have needed enormous data processing and computing skills and a very large budget. A lot of this stuff now is becoming plug and play. It’s very easy to fit into your business model.

“HSBC is no different. At the end of the day, we’re a bank. But if you look at the priorities we’ve got, innovation and technology are right up there. We’re investing billions over the next three years, we’re recruiting 5,000 technology people with digital experience and we’re upskilling staff. For us, things like the biometrics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and certainly digital and the desire of clients to make sure that we interface with what they do, is important but it’s business-driven and client-driven. You want to make use of the technologies available, but you also need to realize that there’s a people implication behind it.”

In conclusion, Stuart says: “If you’re nimble and you’re able to adapt and embrace the new technology you can benefit from them. That means developing digital skills, especially around data analytics, that will allow people to add value and benefit from newcomers. Organizations and treasury teams that do this will be the winners. I know where I’d rather work.”

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