Leading change: Is Asian corporate leadership equipped to navigate technology disruption?______

Leo Chen, Managing Director - Head of Asia

The global financial services industry is undergoing significant technological change. Asia is no exception, with technology changing the way businesses operate in the region across functions as diverse as compliance, sales and payments.

To keep pace with the forces of technological disruption, governments across Asia, including in Hong Kong, are looking to promote a culture of innovation by fostering the evolution of financial technology. For example, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority established a FinTech Facilitation Office in March 2016 to help develop and promote the FinTech ecosystem.

Singapore, which competes in many ways with Hong Kong to be Asia’s technology hub, has arguably been even more active. The Monetary Authority of Singapore, the country’s financial services regulator, has had a dedicated FinTech team focused on establishing partnerships to drive FinTech growth since 2015. Singapore has also committed to spending S$225 million over the coming five years to encourage banks to establish innovation hubs and bespoke technology projects.

Financial services businesses need to embrace the changes to come

Government support has an important role to play, but it is critical that financial service providers themselves are receptive to technological innovation and understand the implications that technology could have for their businesses and strategies. Those firms that adopt this mantra are most likely to remain relevant.

One indicator of businesses’ ability to embrace technological disruption and harness its potential is the presence of technologists at senior levels of management. Board and leadership teams have historically been made up of professionals with backgrounds such as accounting, consulting and law. Given the importance of technology today, firms need to realize that professional technologists are key strategic resources and have a potential key role to play at the executive level.

Calastone recently conducted research into the representation of career technologists at the senior executive level in Hong Kong and Singapore, by assessing the makeup of the boards and leadership teams1 of HSI 100 and SGX 100-listed companies in 2016, compared to 2011.

Hong Kong lags on technologist representation at the senior levels

The research revealed that Hong Kong significantly lags Singapore in the representation of technologists in senior management. While 44.6% of listed companies examined in Singapore had a technologist in a leadership position (i.e. leadership and senior management) in 2016, Hong Kong lagged significantly at just 20.3%. This could be because Singapore has a regulatory regime that is more overtly supportive of technology development.

For example, earlier in 2017 Singapore launched the world’s first regulatory sandbox initiative – the MAS FinTech Regulatory Sandbox – which enable financial service providers and FinTech players to experiment with innovative financial products or services within a well-defined space and for a specified duration.

Similarly, a study published by Ernst & Young in February 2016 indicated that Hong Kong trails Singapore in the area of policy support for FinTech innovation. The report suggests that Hong Kong lacks a clear regulatory framework, meaning that FinTech firms can find it more difficult to establish themselves. This could be because regulators in Hong Kong are not as aware of the opportunities represented by financial technology as their counterparts in Singapore.

That said, both markets have seen steady increases in the number of companies with technologists in senior positions over the past five years. Singapore saw an increase from 17.9% in 2011 and Hong Kong from 6.3%. This growth suggests firms are better positioned to implement the strategic adjustments necessary to embrace new technology.

Disruption drives a re-evaluation of technology function

It is encouraging to see a fundamental shift in the overall perception of the technology function within financial services firms. Whereas technology was previously considered a siloed function, it is increasingly being recognized as an integral part of the business that can be creatively leveraged to deliver strategic change.

However, much still needs to be done in Asia to catch up to international peers. A previous study by Calastone concluded that FTSE 100 index constituents in the UK have made greater progress in terms of boardroom representation. For example, no companies analysed in Hong Kong and Singapore have a technologist in the boardroom, while 4% of UK companies listed on the FTSE 100 now have a technologist at the board level.

It is clear that there is significant scope to improve the population of technologists in corporate leadership positions in Asia and globally. In fact, there are opportunities for financial services firms to learn lessons from sectors which have previously undergone disruptive technology changes.

The research shows that, unsurprisingly, the technology sector leads in Hong Kong, accounting for over 46% of technologists in a leadership position (i.e. senior management and leadership), followed by financials. In Singapore, on the other hand, the banking sector leads the way, with 12% of leadership positions occupied by technologists, followed by real estate management and development.

In particular, banking has been driving technological changes. Retail banks have made enormous strides in digitising customer-facing functions, in the process dramatically enhancing the client experience. They have been evolving with new choices in channels and advances in payments services.

To further accelerate digitisation, firms, regardless of sector, need to strategically incorporate technological innovation into their businesses. Dealing with the technology revolution requires innovative thinking and cultural changes in how firms approach technology, and those which put technology at the core of what they do will be the winners and will likely retain or grow their market share.

First published in China Daily 04/07/17 (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/hkedition/2017-07/04/content_29982683.htm)

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