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Where is the bank’s digital vision?

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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 co-ordination.  Usually, these digital heads are mainly given the objective of creating the digital project to add the digital front-end to the analogue pig (ref yesterday’s 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 is not digital guys; that is just tinkering.

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

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 is 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 upon technology if your C-Suite is populated by people who do not understand technology?

That is a fundamental question, and is why you have so many heads of digital but 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.  That 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 as I know they’re frustrated.  Most of them are frustrated that digital is being dealt with as a project, rather than a change program, 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 start-up 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.



Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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