Thoughts on Automation from an Indian Banker


I am in India for a week – spending time with my client and my team in Bangalore and Delhi . I had coffee earlier today with someone I met at the hotel lobby while waiting for my cab to pick me up – he is a senior banker in the public sector , and is apparently quite savvy on technology . Both his children are in US and in IT field, and he has visited a few times and is familiar with the US political scene and all that . He provided a perspective on automation that definitely gave me some food for thought . I am typing this from my cab ride on the way to my office .

India generally has a heavy leaning to socialist principles and labor is valued more than capital by the society . So the prospect of job loss – real or otherwise – gets people worked up very quickly . He saw that first hand when IT started automating some invoice processing type work at the bank. But the clerks were not fired (my guess is that it is thanks to strong labor unions) – instead they were trained to handle exceptions and they took more responsibilities at the bank .

Apparently that has worked out well – and he was surprised to see resistance to automation decrease rapidly when mind numbing repetition was eliminated from their day job. But he is convinced that the moment the first employee loses his or her job to computers – everyone will be up in arms . He thinks in a country like India with a lot of potential to expand business – one more generation at least will not face the risk of massive job losses . In his projection – based on size of population – India has another 30 years to prepare for it .

I asked him what he thought of more senior roles in management like his own job . He surprised me quite a bit with his reply – he said he expects most of those roles will just go away because there won’t be anything to do for majority of bank managers ! I pressed him for details

He thinks most of the managers just have incremental value add responsibilities today. They resolve conflicts with unions and customers , they make incremental changes to process , they interface with state authorities and they do a lot of reporting . Very few of them – his estimate is less than 10% – worry about things far into future . He is fairly convinced that as computers standardize processes and do it at great speed and accuracy – there won’t be as many conflicts to resolve , no reason to tweak process manually and not much reporting to do . So what would managers do ? He thinks banks will just eliminate those roles over time .

I asked him if he worried if that will happen before his retirement . He said “You haven’t lived here in a while or else you wouldn’t have asked this question . All these things will take twice as long as I estimate – or perhaps will never happen . Our government will have no incentive to let it happen and solve massive social upheavals nationwide”.

I nodded – I totally agreed he is right about his conclusion .

He said there is one trend that might force the government’s hand to allow more automation to happen after all . That is – if the consumers automate how they bank more and more ! Consumers already hate the friction of going to a bank (apparently no different from USA) and want a lot standard functionality in phones and web . And when most consumers behave that way the rest of the bank operations will be forced to respond to a similar way of functioning .

I asked him if he thinks computers can effectively function as equivalents to bankers if I have a problem to resolve . He said “You guys are the exception to the rule . NRI types will always have personalized attention from banks – you are special. We won’t risk computers messing up and you taking your business away from us. With you – our human bankers will just use computers on our desk to get you what you need faster. We can afford to treat you as special because we will save cost everywhere else with computers !”.

I couldn’t help but think he could really have my job – I have made this pitch countless times when explaining virtual agents and agent assists to my clients 🙂 . He just didn’t use fancy jargon – and his conviction was powerful !

I would have loved to continue the conversation for longer but alas my cabbie called that he has arrived . So I took my leave . As we shook hands he said “Vijay – just so I am transparent , I think for you NRIs to get personalized service from us when everyone else is talking to a computer – you maybe charged a little something extra”.

I told him “Sir, this last sentence is why I don’t think you will never get replaced by a machine” 🙂

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Sreekar says:

    How do you just strike a conversation with a stranger in a hotel lobby 🙂
    I wish I had that skill, great way to gain various perspectives and understand ground level reality .. any tips for the shy ones among us ?

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    1. When you travel a million miles , you start getting some skills you didn’t have before . I was very shy and still am to a large extent

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  2. Vijay.. another aspect is – sometimes it is cheaper not to automate, especially with populated countries like India/China. Plus you get the benefit of personalized service.

    In that regard, I agree with your point that decision to automate or not has to be taken by the customers rather than organization themselves 🙂

    Like

  3. tridipc says:

    If so effective from a cab…take cabs more often VJ San …very refreshing post !

    Like

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