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TechWeek at Société Générale: on the road to digital transformation

TechWeek at Société Générale: on the road to digital transformation
“Tech" probably still isn't the first word that comes to mind in thinking about Société Générale, one of France's leading international banking and insurance groups. More likely words (in the French collective imagination anyway, especially the press) might be things like "venerable institution" or even "la vieille dame" (old lady) with over 150 years of history.

That lingering but increasingly irrelevant perception is changing fast. The vieille dame in question has charged up her smart phone, jumped on her eco-friendly mountain bike and - after a quick pause at the Fountain of Youth - is on her way up the challenging road of digital transformation.

Of course, the Group has been putting new technologies to work for quite a while, starting with things like Internet and mobile services for clients. In France, 90% of customer contacts are now digital, with the smart phone as the first point of entry. Even so, over the last three years, these sorts of initiatives have accelerated and gained in variety and scale. Société Générale is now engaged in a digital transformation that will, in our opinion at least, be an order of magnitude greater than could have been imagined before.

Our visit to TechWeek - a remarkable four day event held in July at the Group's Silicon Valley style Innovation Center, Les Dunes, just outside of Paris - provided plenty of evidence that something big is going on. With summer vacation come and gone, we’ve had time to think about it in the larger context of the Group’s digital transformation. In this post, we’ll share a few of our most vivid impressions of the event itself but also some insights about the digital road ahead.

Six Technology Innovation Hubs made their public debut at TechWeek
Six Technology Innovation Hubs made their public debut at TechWeek

Our TechWeek experience

With over 6,000 visitors, 90 stands, 5 showrooms, 75 workshops and 70 conferences, not to mention a Twitter storm of over 3,500 tweets and retweets, TechWeek was quite a show. As far as we know, no other European financial institution has done anything quite like it.

Innovation Hubs in the spotlight

The single most important news coming out of TechWeek was the public debut of six technology innovation hubs that were created this year from internal “communities”. Over the four days, Société Générale put each of the innovation hubs in the spotlight of the TechWeek daily programs:
  • Day 1: Digital workplace
  • Day 2: Digital Process + Big Data & Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Day 3: Cloud + Cybersecurity
  • Day 4: Emerging Technologies (such as quantum computing, robotics, blockchain, IoT…)

The primary strategic objective of the hubs is to accelerate the digital transformation of the business lines. In this context, they are also intended to showcase the value added by digital technologies, develop skills, facilitate “multi-entity” initiatives and federate the teams across the Group.

As resources so far, each hub generally has
  • A showroom to demonstrate and share capabilities and know-how with the businesses
  • A lab to explore and experiment with applications of the technologies
  • Project rooms to develop “proofs of concept” and accelerate new projects in its domain
  • Deployment resources (i.e. skilled specialists) to support the deployment of digital solutions in the field.

How this will all play out over the next few years is not yet clear. Still, in a diverse global financial group like Société Générale, the innovation hubs look like an original and promising approach to efficiently leverage digital skills and drive transformation across business lines and around the world.

Stands, workshops, showrooms and conferences

TechWeek at Société Générale was a kaleidoscope of digital technologies and business innovation. So much to see, so little time!

With so many stands and workshops, not to mention the innovation hub showrooms, the event could have been mistaken for a major IT industry trade show. Still, the “atmosphere” was entirely different: no slick vendor marketing but rather a kind of infectious enthusiasm visible in the people (mostly IT staff but also some partners) putting on the show, sharing their knowledge and a passion for technology that resonated with visitors like ourselves.

As examples we could cite: the bank branch of the future, Open Banking architecture and APIs, digital IAM, cloud security, Big Data architecture, security and machine learning, GDPR compliance, natural language processing… but there were many more.

For the conferences, TechWeek put on stage not just internal people presenting digital achievements and ambitions but also distinguished academic researchers to talk about technology futures, as well as a few philosophers to share their views on the impact of technological change on society as a whole. Conference speakers also came from leading Tech companies including Amazon Web Services (AWS), Atos, Docker, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Orange, OVH, Red Hat, RSA and VMware.

Rather than citing various examples, we’ll just mention one conference that we particularly liked. It came near the end of the Emerging Technologies day and concerned “pay how you drive” insurance for IoT connected cars, in other words, auto insurance sold in an “as a service” spirit, based on how much a car was driven or possibly even how safely it was driven. In its own modest way, “pay how you drive” is emblematic of the highest stage of digital transformation – the invention of innovative products and services only now made possible by new technologies.

The Hackathon Open Bank API’s

“Enthusiasm” is also a good word to characterize the TechWeek hackathon. While we didn’t have the opportunity to visit the busy teams, we could follow the whole thing hour by hour (if not minute by minute) on Twitter via #SG_Hack2017

For two and a half days, 133 participants – Group IT staff as well as student interns, from across the Group and around the world – worked feverishly on 34 different innovative banking projects. Applications were typically smart phone based with secure Internet access to open bank APIs (consultations and transfers) in the cloud.

This “API orientation” was an excellent choice for a hackathon, because APIs can pack a lot of reusable functionality into a simple program call. In any case, systematic use of APIs is also recognized best practice for software development.

The first prize winner was Team Pay, a project of 5 student interns from the French engineering school ISEP and a representative of the French retail banking division. The idea started with the seemingly simple - but in fact annoyingly complicated - problem of organizing and paying group purchases, for example, by friends wanting to sit together at a concert or by people buying almost anything as a group to get volume discounts. Without getting into details, Team Pay provides an extremely simple and easy way to manage the payment of a group purchase.

More broadly, Team Pay is a nice illustration of the advice given some years back by Patty Seybold (IT industry icon and three time NY Times business best seller) to companies of all kinds: use technology to “make it easy for customers to do business with you”.

What’s next for Team Pay with Société Générale? Given its modest scope, we don’t see it as a stand- alone mobile app for the retail bank but, in any case, the age of proliferating mobile consumer apps is coming to an end. There are just too many of them. Nonetheless, it may well find a place among the services provided by, say, an AI enabled “personal retail bank assistant”. Since we have no inside information on this point, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Summing up the TechWeek experience

TechWeek was quite an event and, like all the visitors and the organizers too, we learned a lot and - last but not least - had a lot of fun doing it.

We’ll leave the last word to CIO Xavier Lofficial, the driving force behind the event: "TechWeek illustrates the openness and technological innovation dynamic that permeates the entire Group. This event contributes to transforming new ideas into solutions, for our business lines and for our customers".
Frédéric Oudéa (CEO) on the right with Christophe Leblanc (Group Head of Resources and Innovation) on the left  closing TechWeek
Frédéric Oudéa (CEO) on the right with Christophe Leblanc (Group Head of Resources and Innovation) on the left closing TechWeek

Digital Transformation: Five big things the Group is doing right

TechWeek was certainly a great success and an occasion to share the Group's innovate spirit and some of the many digital initiatives underway. Although we are not yet quite sure how it will all add up, we are convinced that Société Générale is doing (at least) five very big things entirely right.

Top Management leadership

Over the last several years, CEO Frédéric Oudéa has been talking about the inevitable digital transformation of the financial sector and (even more importantly) taking the lead at Société Générale. Still, his very visible involvement in TechWeek, together with other members of the Board of Directors, was a highly symbolic sign of that leadership.

Frédéric Oudéa made a thorough visit on Day 3 and came back on Twitter with a (loosely translated) tweet: "Bravo to all the teams for the success of this magnificent initiative...What a bolt of energy!"

He also came back the next day with Christophe Leblanc, Group Head of Corporate Resources and Innovation, to lead the closing session.

Deep transformation

The stated ambition of Société Générale is to “invent in all aspects the bank of tomorrow”… nothing less!

While mobile apps and other customer facing services are today the most visible aspects, the transformation is intended to go deep into the workings of the entire organization, leveraging digital technologies and reinventing business processes to drive operational efficiency and deliver the best possible service to customers.

In addition, we expect that the Group will continue to invent new products and services only now made possible by digital technologies. A good example seen at TechWeek (mentioned above) was “pay how you drive” insurance for IoT connected cars. In the future, we would also speculate that Artificial Intelligence will be a key enabler for this sort of business innovation. Personal financial assistants (both in retail banking and in wealth management) come to mind as examples, but there are many others.

“Inventing the bank of tomorrow” may be a huge challenge, but the Group clearly has the ambition to step up to it and is already doing so.

Reinvention of Enterprise IT

In the digital age, “IT as usual” is not an option. As business and social change accelerates, enterprise IT has to move faster and smarter, enabling business innovation with digital technologies to stay ahead of the competition.

Over the last couple of years, CIO Xavier Lofficial and his teams have taken up the challenge of reinventing IT at Société Générale. The most visible sign was the opening in late 2016 of Les Dunes, regrouping most of French based IT staff in an “innovation friendly”, Silicon Valley like environment. In 2017, lots of creative things have been going on there every week if not every day (suggestion: follow @SG_InsideIT).

Coming back to TechWeek, we see the creation of the “technology innovation hubs” as a major step forward in the “reinvention of enterprise IT”. While Société Générale has not yet publicly laid out how these transversal hubs will map to the existing (possibly evolving) IT organization, nor the priorities and resources they will have to accelerate the deployment of digital solutions Group-wide, they appear destined for a very original and possibly crucial role.

Business – IT partnership

This point – although closely related to the preceding - merits a special mention because it is a huge challenge for global companies … and a key factor for the success of their digital transformation. In fact, the first stated objective of TechWeek was to “promote the meeting of businesses and IT”.

Société Générale has made a good deal of progress over the last several years in making IT and the business lines work better and more closely together.
Consider two examples:

  • The growing role of “enterprise architecture” in the Group to ensure the upstream alignment of business line and IT priorities and plans
  • The generalization of “agile methodologies” in which “close, daily cooperation between business people and developers” is a key principle and customer collaboration is considered as more important than contract negotiation.

Even so, as outside observers, we tend to think that the Group will go even further, leveraging what it has already accomplished and drawing upon new and emerging approaches, in order to strengthen Business-IT partnership as an operational reality and the motor of innovation.

An Open Innovation ecosystem

Over the years, we’ve heard a lot of hype about the so called “inevitable disruption” of big financial services groups by FinTech startups. As it turns out, with the digital transformation of the financial sector taking hold, widespread disruption is looking less and less likely.

Fortunately, the FinTechs have found new friends in the groups that they were supposedly going to disrupt. Big banks going digital like Société Générale and numerous international peers (Wells Fargo, UBS, JPMorgan, Deutsche Bank, Citi Bank…) have over the last several years launched programs to invest in - and even incubate - promising young companies with innovative ideas.

According to Société Générale, open innovation lies at the centre of the Group’s digital strategy: ramping up its relationships with startups and FinTechs and exchanging and cooperating with them more and more. With a double objective for the Group: sharing its expertise (in regulations, investments, distribution, etc.) with outside players and drawing on their know-how in terms of user experience, new technologies and working methods.

As CEO Frédéric Oudéa said at the TechWeek closing session, Société Générale is increasingly moving away from the “not invented here” syndrome and into an open innovation ecosystem.

Most of these things should still be considered as “works in progress”, but the Group is clearly doing some very big things right on the road to digital. In fact, at the 2017 edition of the French eCAC40 Awards, Société Générale moved up to second place among the French top 40 companies that are managing the challenge of digital transformation most effectively and was also the highest ranked bank.

Moving forward in a digital world

Société Générale is a prestigious international financial institution, present in many geographies and a leader in numerous business lines. A deep digital transformation of the Group is underway. What we saw at TechWeek was a kind of “let a thousand flowers bloom” exuberance that bodes well for the future of the Group. Even so, the question now is: how does it all add up?

Opportunities for innovation are indeed everywhere, but its resources (including time) are not unlimited. Priorities have to be established, and presumably already have been. What we're waiting for is a concise crystallization of Top Management's "vision" for the Group’s digital transformation. Not just to guide execution and win the support of financial markets, but also to mobilize all of the people of Société Générale for the challenges ahead in our increasingly digital world.

Investor Day is November 28 of this year, and Frédéric Oudéa will present the Group's new strategic plan. We will be following with interest.

Friday, November 10th 2017
Donald Callahan
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Duquesne Advisory

Duquesne Advisory is a European firm, dedicated to researching, understanding and advising clients worldwide on opportunities and trends in Information and Communications technology.


Duquesne Advisory delivers in-depth analyses of Information and Communications Technologies, their implementations and their markets. Research is based on critical observation of the market by the analysts and their on-going contacts with the vendor community, together with hands-on, practical experience in consulting engagements.


The analysts of Duquesne Advisory leverage the Firm’s ongoing market and technology research to undertake high added value consulting engagements for both ICT users and ICT providers. Focused on client service, their approach is rigorous and methodical, and at the same time pragmatic and operational.