Innovation accelerated, but be mindful of what we lost: Macquarie Group CEO

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Innovation accelerated, but be mindful of what we lost: Macquarie Group CEO
Shemara Wikramanayake, Macquarie Group CEO

While much of the discussion around digital acceleration and new ways of working focuses on new innovations, it is also important to recognise what has been lost as businesses prepare for the economy to open.

That’s the view of Macquarie Group CEO Shemara Wikramanayake, who far from arguing that the business world should snap back to its pre-Covid processes, instead told delegates at this week's Autonomous21 conference run by Lendlease, “Flexibility, I think will be here to stay and people will be much more empowered in terms of how they deliver.”

She said, however, that there needs to be a holistic consideration of the changes in how we work.

“What I think will be interesting is what we may have lost in the pandemic and how we realise that and strike the balance,” Wikramanayake said.

“People do like to be together and they will want to come back to cities. What we don't know because we've only really had a year and a bit of it, is what we may have lost in terms of people not physically engaging.”

“So with things like collaboration and innovation, I have noticed even in the bits of time we get back intermittently into our offices, this sparks off a lot, bouncing [ideas] off each other.”

She said the culture at Macquarie was to keep embracing new things and adapting to using them.

“This pandemic has been quite seminal in terms of new things we've discovered, and in terms of how we can deliver value,” Wikramanayake said.

“Flexible working was something that would never have occurred to me. I've had a career of longer than 30 years and basically it was getting up at the crack of dawn and going into the office, being there all day, missing dinner with the kids.

“And I found now, [across] all of our lines of business that we can deliver in very different ways, and get more balance into our lives with people spending time on what matters.”

Macquarie Building

The Macquarie chief gave a series of examples of new approaches to how the group works, involving such approaches as virtual data rooms, conducting due diligence with drones, utilising digital exchanges for Macquarie’s commodities businesses and further digitising banking services.

But it is also important to be clear-eyed about the cultural cost of remote working, she suggested.

Apprentices or other younger people coming into the workforce have not had the opportunity to experience the collegiality and team spirit of a physical work environment and missed the opportunity to network and connect.

“We don't know how much we've lost, how much impact [that’s had], because we've only had one year to assess it.”

Technology has done a lot of good, she said, but technology also creates new challenges.

Centralised and distributed

Wikramanayake also spoke about how Macquarie tackled the question of balancing central control with allowing distributed decision making.

“The way it's always worked is to have a balance of letting people on the ground get on with being nimble and making decisions, but then the centre setting common standards and scale,” she said.

“The type of business you are running, and where you are in the business cycle will influence this.”

In financial services, for instance, Wikramanayake believes that will mean leaning more into empowering people on the ground.

“But even for a business like ours ... there's a massive investment needed often when you move your technological systems,” she said.

“You've got to be nimble in the moment, but at the same time the investments you're making have to be valuable for a long period because they are big ones.”

Wikramanayake referenced, by example, the investment Macquarie has made in its digital banking platforms.

“We have had to centrally evaluate the huge scale of spend required and how we work that through with other technology we are investing in. Equally things like moving to the private cloud, for example,” she said.

“These are decisions that have to be made across the whole business. We have to be thinking about the medium-term at the centre and the board is very involved in those central decisions.”

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