DIGIT’s 2020 FinTech Virtual Summit saw financial technology leaders discussing the changing landscape of the fintech sector so far this year.
From the major shifts in technology usage and the impact they are having, to driving innovation in challenging times, the event shone a light on how the sector is adapting to the ‘new normal’.
Of course, a major talking point in 2020 has been Covid-19, which has dominated the conversation and flipped business models on their heads over the last six months. But session one tried to look beyond the virus’ impact on the business sector, and even look to what the future may hold.
Diversity and Equality.
A pressing topic was cultural changes and gender imbalance in the sector. The discussion revolved around what business leaders can do better to address the gender and diversity imbalance in fintech and improve it for the future.
“There’s quite a lot that can be done. I think the important first step is to make it a first step. Secondly, I think a major thing is also making it commercial,” said Wincie Wong, Head of Engineering Workforce Transformation at NatWest.
A lot of business employers, she believes, look at diversity and inclusion as a way to “be nice”, but she said this is not the way it should be viewed.
She said: “The Rose Review says that balancing female entrepreneurship across the UK isn’t just because we want to give women a more balanced view, although we do, it is because it would add £250 billion pounds to the UK economy, which would make everyone’s lives a lot better.”
James Hughes, Vice President & Enterprise CTO at Rubrik, agreed with Wong. He said that Rubrik makes inclusion and diversity a major part of how the company operates.
“With us from our sector, we absolutely agree with diversity. We deal with some of the big hitters in Silicon Valley and we had a talk recently, and one of them said: ‘Look, all of our customers are diverse, so the companies servicing them should diverse as well,’ and going on to Wong’s point, there are a lot of economic benefits to doing it, so I absolutely agree and we will definitely try and encourage it.”
Devie Mohan sees a bigger and more pressing issue across the UK. As a fintech researcher & CEO at Burnmark, she views several issues that arise when trying to address inclusion.
“I think a lot of the problems come about when there is lack of skills in the market, especially with young girls not picking up tech subjects in schools at an early stage,” Mohan said.
“I was lucky to be learning coding as part of the school curriculum when I grew up in India, and I think it’s very much a part of the curriculum in Asia, in India, in China and several countries I’m familiar with, which is not the case in the UK. I think this is a problem that I am actively trying to address.”
Covid-19 and Fintech
As with most conversations about business, it is impossible to dismiss coronavirus. Many organisations have had to risk manage their operations to mitigate potential disaster, and this has caused an inevitable drop in investment.
Business leaders now have more of a need than ever to find technologies that can make managing risks more efficient and help firms to continue functioning during such difficult times, whilst considering operational risk, operational resilience, and security risk.
As the virus continues to affect the world, customers are becoming more relaxed when dealing with technology. As society becomes more intertwined with tech every day, people become more likely to drop their guard.
“In a way, it has become more of a habit,” said Stephen Ingledew, CEO at FinTech Scotland. “It has been built into our lives much more and that acceptance, and therefore relaxing into the usage of it, has been much more to the fore since the pandemic.
“I think that is giving people confidence. If we can demonstrate that level of assurance and therefore confidence in the financial world, using new technologies that are going to build a greater assurance with consumers, they are going to feel even more relaxed than they do today,” he said.
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However, Hughes believes that we are actually less relaxed now than when the pandemic began: “During the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone was the opposite of relaxed,” he said.
“Every bank went out there and bought a laptop for their users, which means that no one else could buy a laptop, and then iPad sales absolutely skyrocketed as consumer behaviour kicked into their working life and the gap between home life and workload became much more blurred.
“I think we’re going into this junction right now where we will be home for nine months or so. We are all getting a bit tired of it, and we have got to find ways now to make sure that everyone feels included, and the culture doesn’t get killed by being also remote,” Huges said.
Wong agreed: “Absolutely. I think what has been really interesting is how the world has changed and how we interact with each other. Certainly, I think, number one, we are now seeing each other through screens, and what I find really fascinating is that this has afforded a lot of positives and a lot of advantages for certain groups as well.”
For example, Wong said, women who would normally not receive the venture funding that they need have struggled much more during the pandemic, but the advent of zoom meetings and remote communications has slowly begun to change that.
“During pitch events, we have seen that women are being drawn through a lot more than they used to,” she said. “Something about flattening everyone into little zoom screens has removed some of the unconscious bias that a lot of investors seem to have, and that has been a real positive.”
Wong said she believes the pandemic has forced us to think and act differently now we have to use these types of technologies to communicate.
“What that means is that you need to stand on your own in a different way,” she commented. “You need to learn how to communicate differently as well, which is why it’s still so important.
“But I think we need to be careful about those that we are leaving behind because, for those who have never used technology, the tech transformation is not over yet. We haven’t made experiences that are absolutely intuitive.”
Fintech and the Future
One thing that all the speakers agree on was that predicting the future of fintech is not an easy task, and the impact that this could have would be bad for the sector.
“A lot of the investments are decreasing, which is a worry for me,” Mohan considered.
“It may pick up later, depending on how Covid-19 goes and how Brexit goes and how vaccinations go, so it’s slightly beyond our control.”
A way that sectors could find their way out of this difficult situation is the adoption of new technologies. Things like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and machine learning (ML) can both boost productivity and help to solve bigger problems.
“I think it’s a really, really exciting area,” Hughes said. “You can be drowned in tech, but if you focus on the real problem that you want to solve, a good way of doing that is through AR and VR. If that is in your skillset and in your arsenal, I think it’s a huge area.
“I see us going back to the office eventually, but I don’t think we’re going to go back in the way we did before. I can’t see me doing 14 hours a day in the city again in the near future, so to be able to be connected that way to work globally – the way we do work these days – yeah, I think that is going to be a massive area,” he said.
Homeworking has now become the norm worldwide, and the speakers agree that getting used to this ‘new normal’ will take time. However, technology could work to mitigate the lack of human interaction lost by home working.
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Mohan said: “Fintech startups are generally more used to working remotely, but we need to be able to establish a culture, a strong culture and a strong identity of belonging to an organisation before we all go out and do our own thing because then you will not work together as a team.”
But it depends on the company, Mohan added. Banks, and most large organisations, have a very basic culture of working together, in smaller teams within larger office spaces.
“Fintechs have more clarity in terms of the way we work,” she continued. “My expectation is that the large companies without a real definition of their own culture and innovation, happening within smaller teams within that large organisation, they will tend to go back to work faster than fintechs.
“There is a chance that everyone will be in offices at some point or the other purely from a team and collaboration point of view. Ultimately, we will want to go back, but the way in which we will go back could be different [depending on] the nature of the company, and how strong the culture is,” she said.
As technology advances and businesses adopt it as part of their day-to-day running and to enable home-working, reskilling and training staff is of utmost importance. Wong believes that it is essential that business leaders put in that extra time to get staff the training they need.
She said: “Where we are transforming our workforce to be reskilled into new technologies, and to learn new things in order to figure out who are the ones who are struggling falling behind, it is a lot more difficult for management to do.
“It is requiring a lot more time; a lot more one to one; a lot more team events; coffees and things to try to make that up. But nothing will replace those other, more impromptu or ad hoc communication networks.”