The legacy of Sir Grayburn: HSBC’s data-led future

HSBC’s Chief Data Officer, Kate Platonova highlights the importance of board-level backing for a truly data-led approach. Speaking at London Tech Week, she shared the story of Sir Grayburn, who helped pave the way for the bank’s data future.


Picture this…

This year is 1941. Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, the Chief Manager of the entire HSBC bank is facing great challenges. He stays in Hong Kong with the rest of his staff, despite the deteriorating situation on the ground. With the aid of pressure lamps, the bank continues to pay out cash, receive instructions on remittances and dispatch telegrams just a few hours before the colony surrenders.

Sir Grayburn refuses to leave, telling his wife, ‘I must remain at the bank. I mustn’t desert it.’ True to his word, he stayed. He passed away in Hong Kong less than two years later. Although Grayburn did not survive the war, the bank did. It owes much of its success to the bravery of its staff and their awareness that whilst cash could be replaced, the data could not.



Why trust matters in banking

According to HSBC’s Group Chief Data Officer, Kate Platonova, Sir Grayburn’s ‘branch staff knew instinctively what they needed to protect. It wasn’t the safe with its reserves of cash, gold and deposit boxes that they hid and locked away. Instead, and at huge personal risk to themselves and their families, it was the records and ledgers’, which contained the details of the bank’s customers, their accounts, and the daily transactions – all of which underpinned HSBC’s operations.

This is a tale not just of bravery, leadership, and sacrifice, it is also a tale of culture and trust. HSBC customers put their trust in their bank, believing the organisation would make the best decisions to protect their assets to the best of its ability. HSBC upheld this trust by valuing and protecting its customers’ data. Consequently, these actions were engrained in the culture of HSBC and its ways of working.


HSBC’s compelling data stories

Speaking at London Tech Week, Platonova revisited Sir Grayburn’s legacy, relating it to business mindsets. Organisations often overlook the role of people and culture in delivering change. To incite cultural change, we must look in more detail at how the organisation operates.

As a result, HSBC’s strategy is driven by the belief that everyone must be comfortable talking about data and making data-led decisions from the boardroom to the branch. In other words, a company must use data to create stories that inspire and build a more data literate culture.


Do not assume data literacy

In most situations, a boardroom summons a leader, asking why a decision was made. Platonova challenged this status quo, asking to meet with the board to determine if it intrinsically understood data. This wasn’t a conversation about money. It wasn’t about selling a vision. It was about engaging and gauging how confident the bank’s leaders were in understanding data principles.

She incorrectly assumed that HSBC’s smartest people were data literate. Whilst data literacy is not synonymous with business acumen, it’s crucial that the most senior people in an organisation obtain a certain degree of comfort working with data to make better, data-led decisions. Platonova helped change HSBC’s ways of working, ensuring everyone felt confident when speaking of data or using it to tell a story.


HSBC’s three pillars

HSBC’s data mission was broken into three pillars: ‘Protect’, ‘Connect’ and ‘Unlock’ for everyone to understand.

  • Firstly, HSBC recognises it operates as a business of trust. Its primary objective is to protect data as an asset, continuing the legacy of Grayburn and other key members.
  • Secondly, the bank must constantly raise the bar for data literacy, connecting people and encouraging them to question and play with data, using the same terminology for more effective communication.
  • Finally, to unlock the value of data, HSBC continually develops smart and innovative uses of data. The best tools will make the biggest difference to HSBC’s customers.

Unlike other retail products, banking comes with a lifetime guarantee. This is perhaps the trickiest aspect of banking. In this sense, banks need a broader vision beyond the technology, looking to operations and compliance. Platonova states, ‘You’re only strongest as your weakest link.’

Consequently, strong ethics underpin HSBC’s banking business, particularly its principles for AI. The bank links itself with the prestigious Alan Turning Institute for safe and ethical AI use.


Looking to the future of data-led banking

HSBC uses models to predict change and risk. This allows for 95% of changes to be processed, releasing software faster without incident.

The bank wants to be the premier wealth manager, but to do this, it acknowledges it needs to be at the top of its game with ‘slick’ ways of interacting with its users. The bank’s dedicated Wealth Management Platform is a good start. Combined with AI, this platform gives hyper-personalised insights into investment performance. The chatbot uses natural language recognition, offering a mix of Cantonese and English in one interaction, a testament to the bank’s hyper-personalised approach.

The bank is also focussing on sustainability. It aims to be carbon neutral across the organisation and supply chain by 2030. The role of data and how HSBC uses AI to nudge staff and customers to explore ethical loans, technical investment funds – all of this will help transition the bank to a more sustainable business model.

In conclusion, Platonova reminded the audience, it is individual actions that will collectively change the world.

If you would like to build a data-led company culture, then please do get in touch. We have the knowledge, product, team, and experience to transform your ways of working.