RETAIL BANKING | Sandra Sendingan, Philippines

How UnionBank is future-proofing its workforce against digital disruptions

In anticipation of the future of work, it launched UnionBank University about a decade ago to stay ahead.

With a commitment to invest over $9m (PHP500m) every year as part of its broad-based digital transformation programme, UnionBank has marked multiple milestones in its digitisation journey: setting up a paperless bank branch, creating an end-to-end logistics platform, rolling out a stablecoin to enhance payment execution and embarking on a project to bring the country’s underbanked to the traditional financial system through blockchain technology.

As the ninth largest Philippine bank by assets builds its digital capabilities so it is also working overtime to equip its workforce with the necessary skills to stay on top of changing ways of doing business.

In an exclusive interview with Asian Banking & Finance, Michaela Sophia Rubio, chief human resources officer at UnionBank outlines how the bank is preparing its workforce for the future. 

To build on UnionBank's commitment to technological innovation, the bank launched UnionBank University to ensure that the people spearheading its tech initiatives are equipped to stay ahead of changing ways of doing business. Can you tell us more about this programme? What other initiatives to enhance the capabilities of your workforce?

The UnionBank University was launched about a decade ago to constantly provide UnionBankers an avenue to acquire the right mindset, constantly upgrade knowledge and skills to meet the requirements demanded by work and the changing business landscape. The focus of UnionBank University today is not just to teach banking and finance but equip people to be agile and to possess the capabilities as jobs transform. UnionBank University provides a variety of courses such as design thinking, blockchain, data science, robotics and AI, mobile and web, software development, UI/UX design to name a few. These courses fuel our communities of practice and ensure we build centers of excellence. We are supported by both internal and external thought leaders and experts in our learning communities. Our courses are offered through physical and digital channels. The effectiveness of the programmes offered has improved employee engagement. We have realized an increase in the number of innovations, better products and services as well as the ability to perform in new roles and jobs as a result of digitization.

UnionBankers need to grow and evolve from their current roles and be ‘hashtag’ talents. The UnionBanker of today should be ready to become the UnionBanker of the future, especially because our digital transformation has unlocked new positions and roles. This means enhancing their current expertise to be functionally flexible, while adding another domain expertise that will enable them to effectively adopt the new ways of working and successfully interact in diverse teams and a dynamic work environment.

True to the Bank’s promise of ‘no one gets left behind’, we identified and categorized the capabilities of new ways of working into Core digital programs. We have Chapters or communities of practice. They are headed by Chapter Leads who are considered domain experts in the bank. Chapters do regular meetups for sharing of best practices, tools and emerging trends in their domain. Our Centers of Excellence have launched the Blockchain Institute and the Data Science and AI Institute. These are needed to make us become a technology company with banking utilities.

We created learning pathways curated by the UnionBank University, to guide UnionBankers as they develop and apply these capabilities.

What are the challenges in futureproofing one’s workforce and how does UnionBank go about overcoming these hurdles?

The challenge of futureproofing is helping people overcome the fear of change which leads them to ask, “Am I still relevant?”. For functions affected by digitization, we have offered opportunities for retooling and have successfully deployed retooled talents for our vacancies and to new jobs. We have long prepared our people for digital by offering programs such as coding, web development and design. One successful story on talent transformation are the people in Branch Operations. The shift from transaction to interaction, manual to digital, high touch to personalized touch, operational to relationship building, from tellers to Branch Ambassadors, is transformation personified. Coaching and on-the-job immersion programmes has helped people shift to new ways of working. We worked heavily on creating our culture to be engaging and agile. Our transformation strategy is not only a top down approach but coming from the middle out. Our middle managers are co-creators of our culture. We are all in this together, again in consonance with our “no one gets behind promise.” To use the analogy of our president and CEO, every UnionBanker has a seat on the train. They only have to show up on that platform.

How important is the people component for UnionBank? Would you be able to share with us what proportion of the bank’s IT budget that goes into employee upskilling and retraining? Do you aim to increase this over time?

The people component is essential component to the success of the UnionBank. People play a role in most of an organization’s operations. Mindsets, knowledge and skills of people determine both the quality and quantity of an organization’s output. The best organizations have the best people at every level. While hiring the right people is important but if upskilling and retraining is not constantly offered, an organization might experience a deterioration in its most important resource. UnionBank believes in investing in its people to upskill and retrain them. These investments will increase based on the requirements of people and the business. UnionBank will continue to provide people with opportunities to grow, develop and build their careers to be able to own the future.

Why is UnionBank choosing to build on and enhance the capabilities of its existing workers as opposed to hiring? What are the advantages of internal promotions/retraining?

While we build and enhance the capabilities of existing workers, we are not opposed to hiring in order to build new capabilities in the organization. The combination of a ‘build’, ‘buy’, ‘borrow’ talent strategy has accelerated the assimilation of new learning and adoption to new technologies and new ways of working from legacy to a transformed organization. But since we heavily invest on people, these investments are further realized once they are able to expand and perform the next higher job. When this happens, it paves the way for promotion and advancement which in turn creates a high level of engagement, accountability and motivation among our people. A work climate where people feel valued correlates with high organizational performance. We also encourage internal transfers among the UnionBank Group. We’ve redeployed UnionBankers as we’ve continued to expand. Most of the senior management of CitySavings, our thrift bank, came from UnionBank, while close to 50 percent of the team of UBX our new fintech subsidiary, also came from UnionBank.

What targets are you hoping to achieve this year in terms of employee upskilling and retraining? What’s your long-term outlook?

We have intensified our learning approaches so that our people acquire domain knowledge in the areas of product and market, digital delivery and operations, risk and compliance, data science, UI/UX across the organization by adopting a combination of on the job, coaching and formal training. We are constantly developing capabilities in our Centers of Excellence by working also with external experts who can advise us on the next technology and best practices. We will continue to do this and evolve learning content as new technologies and better practices emerge. This process will not end. Learning is a continuum, and is a critical factor as to why our people stay – because they are constantly engaged via holistic programs that make them feel supported.

How would you assess your bank’s digitalisation journey so far? 

We have progressed significantly and innovations are happening everywhere in UnionBank. Our squads and teams provide emergent or novel solutions through constant experimentation. They aim to deliver value to their identified missions and ultimately create great customer experiences. Some examples of these innovations are the UnionBank online banking app, the paperless branch called ‘The Ark’ and the creation of an end to end logistics platform through a product called Xlog. Project i2i aims to bring millions of Filipinos to the financial system by connecting rural banks to the country’s main financial network using blockchain technology.

We launched UnionBank’s stablecoin, PHX – a stable store of value that enables transparent and automatic execution of payments. There are also internal solutions being built to create the best employee experiences. We created an employee lifestyle app called 1UHub where HR services can be accessed through mobile anytime, anywhere. We continue iteratively develop our products and services based on feedback coming from the users. We want to build loyalty. Happy customers and employees are the organization’s best ambassadors. 

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