Corporate Innovation/Interview/

“There is one thing we need more of in corporate innovation: diversity”

Diana Biggs took on the role of global head of innovation at HSBC's private banking division in June, with a mandate to change corporate culture.

By Kimberly Eynon

Diana Biggs took on the newly-created role of global head of innovation for HSBC’s private banking division in June this year. She is an expert on blockchain and looking at how the London-headquartered bank could use this and other emerging technologies. But she believes the one key ingredient needed for innovation is diversity.

Creating a culture of openness and psychological safety, however, is not easy.

This is what Biggs told Sifted about her approach to innovation:

What new technologies and areas of innovation are most interesting for HSBC right now?

At HSBC our agenda for digital and innovation is to create a digital banking experience that enhances our interactions with our clients, by building a proposition that is centred around their needs.

“Some of the most interesting technologies are data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

For me, some of the most interesting technologies, with a tremendous amount of potential applications for our industry, are data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Areas of work include using these technologies to personalise client experience, deliver intelligence-led financial crime risk management and drive better business insights and operational efficiencies at scale.

An integral part of that, and an area of great personal interest to me, is the development of data privacy and ethics principles and frameworks, which we are embedding end-to-end across our use of these technologies from the very start.

Partnerships for innovation are also a key focus for us. Working with a range of collaborators, from fintech startups to big tech, we’re developing relationships where we can leverage the latest in technology and innovations from the experts at the forefront, and in return, those partners can address any potential limitations in areas such as market experience, market share or regulatory expertise. Having a shared goal is central to the success of those partnerships and for us and our partners, that is to offer clients cutting-edge digital services which bring value to their lives.

One recent example from our private banking business is our partnership with BlackRock for its Aladdin Wealth platform. This enables our advisors to offer enhanced and bespoke portfolio construction, risk management and analysis to our clients. We were the first private bank to start offering these capabilities on a global scale. Until relatively recently the benefits of Aladdin Wealth were only available to institutional investors and we’re excited about the additional benefits this can unlock as we continue to build out new offerings.

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What do you think will be the biggest threat for your business in the next five to 10 years?

There is no doubt that the landscape for the financial services industry is changing rapidly. Consumer expectations are shifting and the ways our clients use digital technology are continually changing. The pace of technology change is in itself accelerating and we’re in a challenging market environment.

How will your innovation programme help you address that?

We’re looking at innovation holistically, working across three main areas: empowering our colleagues to engage in innovation, equipping the business with the necessary tools and capabilities for innovation, and experimenting with new technologies and partners.

“Our initiatives here include running coding classes, global hackathons, speaker series, ideas showcasing events, advocacy groups and building out content on HSBC University.”

On empowerment we’re engaging our colleagues across all areas of HSBC in innovation, and personally this is one of my favourite areas of work. It’s really important because we need everyone to not only be looking for opportunities to innovate, but to also act on those ideas. Examples of our initiatives here include running coding classes, global hackathons, speaker series, ideas showcasing events, advocacy groups and building out content on HSBC University — the bank’s official learning programme, which receives more than 52,000 visits every month.

In terms of capabilities, we are putting in place methodologies and tools, as well as sharing best practices, in order to make it possible to innovate. Examples include building sandbox environments and a developer portal, and streamlining our processes around partnerships and collaborations. We’re focusing on achieving this both internally and together with the rest of the industry, through initiatives like the UK’s Fintech Delivery Panel.

We then put these areas into practice by testing and learning, directly with our teams and clients wherever possible, through proof of concepts and pilots with new technologies and with fintech partners.

How do you challenge yourself and your company to ‘think outside the box’?

Giving people the opportunity to share ideas is a great stimulus for this, particularly when they can see the results for themselves. We have internal ideas hubs, where colleagues can share, debate, and vote on innovation ideas, to provide the opportunity for everyone to contribute to the agenda.

“Hackathons have been fantastic for bringing together colleagues from across all areas of the bank.”

Stepping outside one’s day-to-day work is also important, and for this we bring in external speakers and partners, as well as attend events to gather ideas and inspiration from other players in the market, other industries and academia via our partnerships with universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Hackathons have also been fantastic for bringing together colleagues from across all areas of the bank and providing the opportunity to experiment by re-imaging client journeys.

Learning is also a great enabler, and in addition to HSBC University, we have partnerships with external providers, such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera and learning modules offered by our Cloud service providers.

What is currently not working in corporate innovation?

“Diversity goes beyond just the statistics and the hiring process is just the start – there is no quick fix to embed a truly inclusive culture.”

There is one thing we absolutely need to see more of — not only in innovation teams, but across organisations in order to spark more innovative thinking. This is diversity. Diversity goes beyond just the statistics and the hiring process is just the start — there is no quick fix to embed a truly inclusive culture. It may require shifting deeply entrenched norms and structural constraints and it also requires an environment of psychological safety, where everyone feels comfortable to participate in an open and authentic way.

By having a variety of perspectives, backgrounds and voices at the table (and also having different “tables”), companies will benefit from that variety of expertise and experience for existing propositions. The data shows they will also be better equipped to develop new ideas, challenge the status quo and ultimately bring better outcomes for the business and for clients.

What advice would you give to a new head of innovation — what do they need to get right from day one?

My advice for a new head of innovation would be to focus on building trusting relationships across your range of internal stakeholders from the very start: that means business teams, IT, legal,  compliance, risk, digital etc. Creating an open and collaborative working relationship centred on a shared goal will reap long-term benefits. Aligning on those goals and strategic priorities and creating an environment where all areas are open to contribute and share ideas is an important foundation for your future work.

“Focus on building trusting relationships across your range of internal stakeholders from the very start.”

Being able to balance the understanding of the internal use cases and the mandatory requirements, referring to regulation, controls and security, all of which take absolute priority, while remaining visionary and enabling experimentation is also key to the role. This requires optimism, resilience and perseverance.

What book has been most helpful to you in thinking about corporate innovation?

I can’t say I’ve ever read one! Much of my non-fiction reading has been focused on venture building and technology and its potential implications on our future. Most recently I found “Blitzscaling” to be a useful read and I’m about to start Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, which I’m really looking forward to after hearing her speak earlier this year.

I’m definitely on the podcast bandwagon for getting the latest news and ideas during the London commute and there’s an increasingly wide range of inspiring, thought-provoking content available there.