How to Establish an Agile Corporate Culture in Banks
For banks, the development towards a customer-centric, flexible and adaptable organization is indispensable. Technology giants and fintechs are increasingly entering the traditional banking market and setting new standards for the financial industry with innovative, user-friendly products. This puts banks in a bind, as they often lack the ability to react flexibly and promptly to changing market conditions with new products (Thiele et al., 2019). The widespread introduction of agile techniques could remedy the situation, but very few banks are adopting the agile approach, according to a study of financial services providers conducted by the consulting firm Zeb (Zeb, 2020). Two-thirds of study participants agreed that agility is a key factor in managing digital transformation. Yet only less than one percent of respondents confirmed that their organization is largely agile. Some 22% said their company was taking steps to become more agile. A full 73% of financial services providers have not yet taken any (11%) or only isolated agile measures. The difficulty in establishing agility in banks lies in the introduction of agile management structures (Breinich-Schilly, 2020). But where should banks start in order to tread the path toward an agile organization? And how can banks set the course for developing an agile corporate culture?
Agile Culture is Based on Three Pillars: Transparency, Empowerment, and Collaboration
The corporate structures of successful agile organizations have little in common, whereas the corporate culture is characterized by three practices described by Puckett (2020) in the so-called TEC model: Transparency, Empowerment, and Collaboration.
An agile organization is able to adapt quickly and appropriately to changes in the corporate environment. To do this, it must perceive the changes in a first step and design and implement suitable solution strategies in a second step. In order for both to happen as efficiently and effectively as possible, employee involvement is essential (Ringel, 2016). Each individual within a company has knowledge about the market, customers, or trends relevant to the company and can serve as a kind of sensor for the environment of an organization. In order to make the best possible use of collective knowledge, it should be made transparent, i.e., accessible, by using tools, for example, that clearly provide information on subject areas with the corresponding contact data of the knowledge carriers in the company for all employees. In addition, the goals and backgrounds of overall corporate decisions should be made transparent by the management (Puckett, 2020). The insights shared in this way support all employees in developing ideas and formulating and implementing strategies and tactics.
The Dutch bank ING represents a good example of the implementation of an agile organization. It has changed from a traditional structure to an agile organization and is now divided according to the SAFe scaling framework into numerous squads of nine people each, which in turn form part of a so-called tribe. An important tool at ING to create transparency is the QBR (Quarterly Business Review). For the QBR, each tribe writes a report describing what it has achieved in the last quarter, what its biggest positive and negative findings are, and what it plans to achieve in the next quarter. The document is shared with all tribes so that everyone can learn from the successes and failures in the company. Feedback and inputs are requested, which are also treated transparently in the company. This can take place, for example, in the team or across departments through so-called retrospectives. (McKinsey, 2017).
The second pillar of the TEC model is empowerment. On the basis of the first pillar, transparency, employees can make better decisions and gain more self-determination regarding their tasks. A key feature of empowerment is that supervisors grant their subordinates the necessary power or autonomy to best implement their projects (Kim & Beehr, 2019). This freedom of action is important in order to adapt work to one’s own habits and to be able to react more flexibly to changing customer needs or technical innovations. To be able to work flexibly, rules are to be kept as minimal as possible. Ownership is seen as the ultimate goal of empowerment. Individuals and teams are given end-to-end responsibility for projects; employees are their own entrepreneurs in the company who commit to a goal and in return are given freedom of decision and scope for action (Puckett, 2020).
At ING, the importance of empowerment is already evident in the formulation of the bank’s goal: “Empowering people to stay a step ahead in life and in business.” Retail and institutional customers are to be empowered to realize their own visions for a better future. At ING, empowerment refers not only to customers, but also to employees. The scrum teams are offered extensive autonomy with a lot of self-determination. In addition, ING offers voluntary paid maternity leave or encourages employees to take sabbaticals. ING also promotes flexible working hours and working from home (ING, 2020).
The third pillar of the TEC model is collaboration. Organizations can have vast amounts of data and information at their disposal and still fail in the marketplace, because the increasing mass and complexity of available data can no longer be processed by single individuals working autonomously. Especially in the case of abrupt or unexpected changes, it is essential to have sufficient flexibility to quickly organize into new teams and work together on a solution. Collaboration is the most direct way to use collective knowledge and thus to improve the quality of decisions. Sharing ideas can also create opportunities to find and leverage synergies. Collaboration supports shared learning and growth (Puckett, 2020).
At ING, IT was for a long time strictly separated from other areas. During the transformation to an agile organization, this has changed: Today, employees from IT and business sit together in the building, divided into groups. This is done in an environment where there are no supervisors to control and slow down cooperation between areas (McKinsey, 2017).
However, collaboration is not only central within a company, but also with organizations from outside. As an example, Commerzbank examined open banking collaborations in a white paper. It turned out that new market participants, such as fintechs, should not be viewed exclusively as competitors, but as partners. In collaborations, each party contributes unique assets and capabilities, which increases the potential for great solutions (Commerzbank, 2020).
The article shows that even large banks, such as ING, can transform into agile organizations and operate successfully in a competitive market environment. Banks should realize the importance of an agile culture and consider the three pillars of transparency, empowerment and collaboration. Without transparency as a foundation that builds trust and provides information for better decision making, all other measures are obsolete. In addition to transparency, employee empowerment is essential so that employees can translate their knowledge into decisions and react promptly to changes. Collaboration, as the last pillar, provides the opportunity to increase the quality of decisions, to use synergy effects and to react quickly to environmental changes. Collaboration and the exchange of ideas should not only take place within a bank, but also externally, and involve different external parties.
Finally, the dimension of culture comes before the structure and processes of a company (Thonet, 2019). Without introducing an agile culture, any effort to use agile ways of working will fail. Consequently, the corporate culture is the key factor for banks to implement an agile organization and to operate competitively in the market in the future.
 A total of 216 people took part in the survey. Among the participants, 37% were employees and 63% were managers. In addition, the study shows a spread in company sizes (<500 employees 42%, 500-2000 employees 35%, > 2000 employees 23%).
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ING. (2020). Benefits. https://www.ing.jobs/netherlands/Why-ING/benefits.htm
Kim, M. & Beehr, T. (2019). Job crafting mediates how empowering leadership and employees’ core self-evaluations predict favourable and unfavourable outcomes. European Journal Of Work And Organizational Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/1359432X.2019.1697237
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Thiele et al. (2019). Open Banking und dessen Auswirkungen auf die Organisationsmodelle von Banken. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/de/Documents/financial-services/agile-banking-juni-2019.pdf
Thonet. (2019). Agilität braucht kulturellen Wandel. https://www.springerprofessional.de/agile-methoden/change-management/agilitaet-braucht-kulturellen-wandel/16529228
Ringel (2016). Transparenz als Ideal und Organisationsproblem. Wiesbaden: Springer Verlag. Zeb. (2020). Agilität – Das grösste Missverständnis unserer Zeit. https://zeb-consulting.com/files/media/documents/2020-02/zeb_agile_readiness.pdf
- How to Establish an Agile Corporate Culture in Banks - 19.03.2021