Standard Bank on closing branches: We can’t stop the progress of technology

South African and African companies have a duty to do everything in their power to make it possible for people to adapt successfully to the world of the fourth industrial revolution, says Standard Bank Group chief executive Sim Tshabalala.

However, he cautioned that the changing pace of technology is not always within a firm’s power to control.

Standard Bank closed more than 100 branches and retrenched hundreds of staff members as part of its efforts to digitise its retail and business bank in 2019.

The bank said that it has worked hard to minimise the impact of this re-organisation on its staff members.

Speaking at a Deloitte conference on Thursday (30 January), Tshabalala said that companies cannot, and should not resist technological progress.

“To use Standard Bank as an example: last year, some people argued that we had a duty to keep empty branches open to preserve jobs,” he said.

“When challenged in this way, I often replied by asking my interlocutors when they had last visited a branch. Most people suddenly looked a bit embarrassed and said, ‘years ago.’

“In other words, keeping those branches open meant wasting resources and keeping staff idle – which is very demoralising.”

“Looked at in aggregate, it meant that our competitiveness would fall, and then – in fairly short order – so would our capacity to fulfil our economic and social purposes.”

Tshabalala said that trying to hold back technological change doesn’t work.

Instead, it is both a moral and an economic imperative to provide staff with opportunities to retrain whenever necessary, either to stay relevant in their current jobs or to find a new one, he said.

“Further, when new technology is resisted, it becomes a pragmatic necessity to provide new opportunities for the people who fear losing their livelihoods.”

Skills challenge

Tshabalala said that the scale of the skills challenge is just too big for any corporation – or even the whole private sector combined – to tackle.

“At present, nearly 60% of African 15 to 24-year-olds have only a primary school education, and only 19% have gone beyond lower secondary. And that’s just education.

“Businesses can do almost nothing about labour market structure, or transport costs, or migration regulations,” he said.

He added that the African continent is ‘nowhere near ready’ to make a just and inclusive transition through the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“To do that, we will require not only ethical corporations, but also a capable state, and a strong and vigilant civil society.”

Read: 4 things to expect from South Africa’s most important budget in 20 years

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Standard Bank on closing branches: We can’t stop the progress of technology