Société Générale boosts its digital transition with employees

Caroline Guillaumin, Françoise Mercadal, Cédric Ingrand

After the French Postal Service which I wrote about in a previous post, here’s another case of a business that recently set up an employee mobilization program, this one being about crafting a digital transition program. The company is the Société Générale bank. An interesting case in an industry known for not very comfortable with digital and in which conservative attitudes usually prevail.

When Digital moves from the “Risk” to the “Opportunity” box

As often for such projects, things never happen by luck. As Frédéric Oudéa, the bank CEO, said, there’s been a sudden awareness that, even if it was challenging many assumptions, digital was here to stay and resisting was futile. So the bank had to make de most of it. This was a real about-turn since digital was a matter the board used to see as a risk and, one day, they started managing it as an opportunity.

But old habits die hard and Société Générale started to think its digital transition in a “1.0” fashion. Vertically, top-down and in silos. That’s the moment when two key people decided to take the matter over : Françoise Mercadal-Delasalles (head of resources and innovation) and Caroline Guillaumin (head of communication). For them, digital transition is a behavioral mater so there’s no way to craft a digital transition program in a way that’s not digital. And, as Françoise Mercadal said : “it’s a matter of survival for businesses of our size“.

Then SG communities, the company social network that was still in its infancy, came on stage. That’s the tool Mercadal and Guillaumin immediately thought of to support their participative approach aiming at involving employees in crafting the digital transition roadmap. As a matter of fact employees are more digital than their employer and are those who know their needs and their customers’ the best. That’s how PEPS (acronym meaning “boost” in english) was born, the letters standing for : “Participative and Stimulating Experimental Project.

Startup mode and cultural disruption

And they met success. Employees are more and more numerous to join the young social network that has now more than 16 000 members. Jean-Paul Chapon, the man behind SG communities : “we never have the right numbers since every day tens of new users join us”. In less that one month SG communities doubled its size, from 8 000 to 16 000 users. Employees started to submit ideas, improve others one’s and, after a couple of weeks 16 000 votes helped to make what matter emerge among 1 000 ideas. With employees of 19 countries participating, it’s an impressive success at the company scale, knowing the bank was not used at all to such practices. For example when the CEO, Frédéric Oudéa, joined the conversation, employees asked him if it was “really” him.

This success backed Mercadal’s ideas : crafting digital in a digital way with a startup mindset. Try, see what works, accept that some things won’t work. The exact opposite of the banking culture. Now she can say – with satisfied airs – that at the very beginning no one at the board except Caroline Guillaumin and her, seemed to think that it could work. Today the company has evidences – backed by experience – that digital transition is both possible and expected by employees. At the end, the program is strengthened and even more legitimate than ever.

The results of PEPS speak for themselves since they are the expression of what makes sense for Société Générale’s employes. 3 main lines emerged :

Caroline Guillaumin, Françoise Mercadal, Cédric Ingrand


Data, service and flexible work

• Customer orientation : give data back to customers and clerks in an useful, usable and easy-to-consume form, through new apps and services. Make transactions easier and intelligent services easier to activate depending on context (geolocation). Improve the digital presence to service customers (notice : Société Générale has been named best customer service for a bank in France and commits to answer customers questions in less than 30 minutes on twitter).

• Teams : we hear a lot of the consumerization of enterprise software but here we can see that, through the tools, employees are pushing a new philosophy of work and of the workplace. Their expectations are bout : flexible work, home office, BYOD. Another challenge is to bring all employees to an acceptable level of digital litteracy to help them embrace change and empower them to help their customers use the new services the company is pushing to its customers (most of all mobile ones).

• technology : even if employees prefered the two previous points – in fact technology is only there to enable them – we can see two interesting demands raising, clearly showing what employees want to deal with information and tools overload.The first resquest is about SSO, the second about a global and single search engine.

That’s only the beginning of the process. The ideas will be submitted to the board and “sold” to the business units and business lines during a roadshow. So it will be interesting to come back in one year, see who’s decided to implement what and to what extent. If a battle has been won, the war is going to be long.

No digital transition without employee participation

As a matter of fact, this digital transition is also quite disturbing to employees. Digital is changing their habits, behaviors, even their job. It’s unavoidable and may be stressful for many of them who are wondering what will their professional future be. If an approach like PEPS does not change anything to the change in progress, it makes employees become players of the game, gives them some control involve them in the decision making process. So we can think that PEPS favors engagement, facilitation and even pacifies the context. Moreover employees liked the approach a lot and many asked what will be the topic of the next debate. Maybe “the future of banking”.

But one thing is sure : for Franceçoise Mercadal and Caroline Guillaumin the future is not to have physical banks replaced by digital ones but the articulation of both according to what makes sense in a given context. Which is lucid and reassuring.

To end I’ll thank Société Générale for the invitation and Françoise Mercadal, Caroline Guillaumin and Jean-Paul Chapon for their receptiveness and transparency in the discussions.

(Photo: Philippe Zamora)