Winds of Change...

 

It was the early nineties; the winds of change were moving inexorably across the economic landscape of the country as India’s then prime minister, and his able trustees the Finance Minister , and the Governor of the country’s Central Bank, set about breathing new life into the country’s stultified financial climate.

To begin with, the economy had to open up and antediluvian laws and regulations scrapped before foreign investors were enthused enough to invest in the vast potential of the huge Indian middle class which was moving out from a culture of saving to spending-and-splurging mode. Without the much needed and long overdue liberalisation of the economy, who would venture into the morass of India’s bureaucratic red tape, not to speak of the notorious apathy of the Indian banking system?

Already, a few small private banks were showing the way banking should be done, and public acceptance of these small pioneers was evident in no small measure. As the sector opened up to foreign banks the public sector banks, including the one I worked in, could clearly see the warning signals: change or perish. Being public sector the Government of course would be there to bail you out, but what ignominy that would be to those of us who prided ourselves on our hard work and a sincere desire to change with the rest of the world, to be among the best banks in the country.

The first few years of the 90’s were spent in trying to wean bank employees from manual accounting to partial computerisation on the most basic machines which could automatically  perform several  tedious accounting jobs. Handling theses machines carried an additional allowance so the posts always went to the senior-most employees who actually shied from laying their hands on the keyboard, fearing the worst. The younger and computer-savvy staff were naturally left frustrated and what should have been a boon often turned out a bane.

But it was not only the bank employees who had to get used to this new concept; the customer also fought shy of computerised printouts of his statement of account – he would rather have his pass book than maintain a file of printout pages. The average customer would rather sit in front of a body and face than a machine, he would rather visit the bank than use a debit card. The average age of our customers was 50 plus and a significant segment comprised the pensioner, whose son was away at work for much of the day,  the daughter in law either working herself or busy with housework, the grandchildren away at school. He therefore had all the time in the world at his disposal, so what better than to visit the friendly neighbourhood bank ( not those snobby private ones that had no time for oldies like him), where old friends at the counter were never too busy to have a friendly chat and a cup of tea with you and where you could meet your compatriots all as unbusy as yourself and voila, before you know it, it’s time to go back home for lunch!

My challenges therefore were two-fold. First, convince the customer that his bank would soon be able to offer all the latest technology without losing sight of the human element in our relationship. Then came the greater challenge: to convince our own employees that switching to machines would not compromise their jobs, that machines were meant to remove the tedium out of banking and allow them to focus on their core job of customer service. To use such words as ‘What can I do for you’ rather than ‘What do you want’, to be comfortable dealing with younger clients to whom time meant as much as money. To understand that what we with our tremendous manpower could offer was technology with a human face implied a major change in attitude and mindset.  It was an uphill task but determination and deadlines made it doable. The spectre of a Y2K disaster had dissipated, the 21st century had come upon us and with it a whole new world in banking technology. Instructions were issued by the top management for total computerisation within 18 months. Those of us in the field had nothing to look forward to but resistance and more resistance.

Exactly 18 months later, after many sleepless nights, many wild swings of blood pressure, much planning and re-planning, many many altercations and pow-wows with the unions, and many frustrations, total computerisation of the 800 plus branches of the Bank was declared. My greatest moment of fulfillment  came a few months later, when executives of some of the world’s biggest banks visiting my office,  expressed their amazement and wonder at the  almost impossible feat achieved within such a short time by a largely computer-illiterate work force .

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16 responses »

  1. Varun Reddy says:

    I still remember that this was the very same thing that Prof. Rajesh Aithal told us in our Marketing class – right from the free time of the older generation to the short-of-time of the younger generation, and on how it changed the mindset of banks and bankers. I guess the fact that the younger work-force has more disposable income than it ever did has contributed a lot towards making the banks more customer-friendly.

  2. Dear Vimala,

    Technology brings in a lot of change and if used well can really benefit mankind. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

    Nicely expressed post Vimala. And very informative too.

    • vimala madon says:

      Thanks Shail, for appreciating my piece. I lived the experiences and learnt from them and in retrospect i can think of those times with nostalgia. Especially when even now old colleagues of different levels get in touch with me to relive with satisfaction those harrowing times!

  3. deepika says:

    A very informative piece of writing. Computerisation has revolutionised the banking process but carefull handling is always needed.

  4. Geetashree Chatterjee says:

    An extremely illustrative and inspiring article. Technology with a human face should definitely be the logo of a labour intensive nation.

    Change is imperceptible more so when it concerns the mindset. A stupendous task to be accomplished indeed!

    But sadly reactionary elements still mar the scenario and would take some time to dissipate.

    • vimala madon says:

      Yes, Geetashree, unions are still strong but even they have begun to realise that without the goodwill of the public they will not get what they want. I also know from experience that much of their strength is a result of the weakness shown by the management who in the face of their threat and govt ire, tend to yield to unrealistic demands. But if the management is strong without being biased or vengeful, you can get a lot of respect and even break down resistance because most of the employees are not really in favour of a hard line and would rather get on with their work.

  5. Sonal Shree says:

    You are absolutely right. I will cite an instance of the difficulty some employees face in using computer. Recently I went to one of the branches of a bank in Kolkata to deposit some money in my account. The person incharge of that particular window was so slow in typing that I could easily calculate an average of 10 minutes per person. My turn came much later even though there were not many people in the queue.
    At the same time, its nice that even though slow with some, its a steady process. Accepting drastic changes is not easy.

    • vimala madon says:

      Thanks for looking in Sonal Shree. While there is a lot of improvement in the quality and speed of service a lot also depends on the quality of the individuals working in each branch which makes all the difference.

  6. Beyniaz says:

    Very nice blog, Vimala.

  7. Sneha says:

    You’ve been there on the other side of the fence, Vimala 🙂 and lived through it… Of course, computerisation has its own boons and banes like everything else !

    • vimala madon says:

      Yes, the bane is often of our own making. When we disregard the code of secrecy of our password for instance. I often used to tell the employees that it is ‘pass word’ and not ‘pass the word’! Also, as long as the dashed computer works it is great but when it crashes it is hell because you don’t often know how to set it right and have to run all over the place to have it looked into.

  8. vimala ramu says:

    Thats true, Vimala. You bank employees must have undergone lots of problems during computerisation. But, if only it brings in transparency all over, it is indeed a boon non pareil. But as efficiency improves, hacking fears also increase side by side.

    • vimala madon says:

      thanks for your comment vimala. In retrospect I can laugh at some of the experiences but at the time it was nothing but tension and anxiety and frustration. And you are right about the problems that come along with computerisation, the hacking, the frauds and the misuse that can take place and cause untold harm.

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