Creating The Financial Mall

The cheerful HSBC Bank branch at Bombay’s Flora Fountain seems a hot spot for out-of-the-box thinking. Visually, it is bright and full of activity. The 35,000 strong workforce, with an average of thirty, crave change and innovation.

The worst thing we can do is shut them out. They believe in themselves, they are passionate about their ideas. They need to know where the idea is going. Just generating ideas is not enough!“, says Naina Kidwai, CEO.

Her ideas on innovation are interesting. “One needs to be able to generate ideas, grow them and finally disengage from them when the time comes! The last may be the toughest!

The bank had a program called ‘Magic Ideas’ in 2007. “The ideas had to be developed, critiqued and presented, fully grown“, says Naina. The best ideas received awards. Those that passed the preliminary ‘smell’ test were acknowledged. The best were honored at an annual event. “The bank can be quite bureaucratic because of our compliance requirements. The systems orientation can make innovation difficult in all areas. We look for places where flexibility is possible“, she explains.

We are a listening organization. We try to listen to everybody. We realize the need to get feedback from people doing the job at junior levels. The peon interfacing with the customers needs to support us“, she says.

She outlined the mega exercise undertaken in 2005, where 130 task forces were created to look at ways to make the bank a better place to work in. Each essential element was chaired by a top officer reporting to the CEO. These were cross – functional teams which came up with truly innovative solutions – flexi-time, focussed attention on grassroots participation and ways to create happiness and excitement.

There was a serious effort in 2007 to engage the whole bank. How to involve everyone in idea generation? How to engage the brain, which is so under – utilized? “We use a form of carpet bombing. We put people who were creative into every team to infect the others.” ‘Project Vridhi’ or improvement, focuses on small ideas. The awards ranged from flat screen TVs to iPods.

The bank’s present focus is on SMEs, because sixty percent of India belongs to this group who succeed in the face of enormous frustration and corruption. “I think everyone needs to work three times harder in the Indian system. Networking and partnership are key.“, she says. “We will learn from anyone. We studied ideas for retail by studying Pizza Hut. We looked at Mindtree and Wipro for their technology inputs. Jet Airways taught us better service. I thought about diversity and women’s groups when I read an article about Jack Welch of GE.

Customers can too look forward to an unusual experience. The bank is not a branch but a mall. There are Saturday surprises which include food and ice cream for visitors. There is a charity sale too, where NGOs sell their products. All festivals call forth decoration and celebrations. There is a ‘May I Help You’ desk and a special lounge to give high net worth individuals an extraordinary experience. This is presided over by a relationship manager.

The ‘Turn It Upside Down’ experience of changing HSBC Bank from an elite institution into a people’s retail institution required radical change in recruiting, training and deploying. “In small towns, we looked for people who could speak the local language well and blend into the local culture. We needed to become more user friendly in rural areas. This was a period of extraordinary innovation, requiring a soul – level change in the bank’s mindset.