The back office revolution in the 1930s

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Louis-Raphaël Bischoffsheim (1800-1873)

Louis-Raphaël Bischoffsheim (1800-1873)

Innovation can take various forms. In the banking sector, one of the greatest changes involved the organisation of work. In the 1930s, the Banque Nationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie (BNCI) paved the way for this revolution by separating administrative tasks from commercial tasks. The back office came into existence when administrative centres were set up. By streamlining work and being innovative, the BNCI was able to promote growth during difficult economic years.

Rebuilding on new foundations

The Banque Nationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie (BNCI) was set up on 18 April 1932, after the official liquidation of the Banque Nationale de Crédit (BNC) which had been seriously hit by the financial crisis of 1929. The change of name was a mark of renewal energetically supported by the Director General Alfred Pose. Assisted by young Ecole Polytechnique and HEC graduates, Pose thoroughly remodelled the BNCI by streamlining the organisation of personnel and the tasks they were given. It was essential to optimise employees’ working time which was limited to eight hours per day by the law of 23 April 1919. Expenditures for staff represented the bulk of the bank’s operating expenditures, called “overhead costs”.

Between 1932 and 1935, the BNCI closed about one hundred unprofitable offices to improve profitability. It also drew inspiration from Taylorism which had been flourishing in Europe since the 1920s. This technique, developed by the American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, advocated l’organisation scientifique du travail (OST) – scientific management – in order to improve efficiency and production facilities.

Separating tasks to improve work

Alfred Pose initiated a major turn around for the BNCI – administrative work was centralised and separated from commercial positions. Each employee was given a specific task, corresponding to his or her competences. In the 1930s, the bank set up administrative centres that allowed branch staff to free themselves from secretarial work, accounting and filing. The first one opened in Bordeaux in 1934. Other regional centres followed and allowed clerical jobs to be centralised at a time when office equipment was revolutionising the banking sector.

Electrical accounting procedures were introduced with machines designed to save time and also save money. The BNCI was a pioneer in France because this organisation of work that distinguished between administrative and commercial tasks only became common practice in Europe in 1960-1970, with the development of computerisation.

Partial view of the administrative annex of the BNCI, rue de Sofia in Paris in the 1950's. All parisian administrative offices were centralised in this building. BNP Paribas Historical Collections
Partial view of the administrative annex of the BNCI, rue de Sofia in Paris in the 1950’s. All parisian administrative offices were centralised in this building. BNP Paribas Historical Collections

Tools to get ahead

In the “back office”, as it is now called, mechanographical equipment really transformed work. The bank had to manage more and more customer accounts and several tons of paper were used every month to draw up notes, accounting documents, securities, account statements, etc. Therefore, operations had to be automated. Typewriters and calculators were successfully combined to create calculating machines which found their place in offices, as did statistical machines.

Punched cards were used by data entry operators to enter the positions of accounts and cheques, etc., the advantage being that they could be re-used every month to calculate the payroll and conserve fixed data. Punched card machines not only automated operations, they also eliminated many human errors. With card reproducing punches, it became possible to write a piece of information on several registers at a time. In BNCI’s new administrative centres, everything was designed to optimise operations. Photographs taken at the time show chairs on rails that were designed to save time when filing.

Bull sorters and collators Bull (used to put together all the punch cards) room at the parisian administrative annex of the BNCI (1954), rue de Sofia in Paris - BNP Paribas Historical Collections
Bull sorters and collators Bull (used to put together all the punch cards) room at the parisian administrative annex of the BNCI (1954), rue de Sofia in Paris – BNP Paribas Historical Collections

Efficiency to promote growth

Created as a result of bankruptcy, the BNCI gave itself the means to succeed. As well as setting up administrative centres, it acquired assets in struggling local or regional banks, such as the Banque du Dauphiné in the south-east of France and the Société Nouvelle de la Banque Adam (SNBA) in the Pas-de-Calais department. This commercial strategy was deliberate and efficient and strengthened the position of the BNCI. The employee reorganisation scheme was implemented in all the new offices that the bank opened and in 1936 it opened seventy. Each time, the Organisation department, housed in the General Inspectorate, took charge of training the new teams to use the bank’s new methods. Efficiency was improved in the offices and at the counters where employees could devote their time to customers and commercial development. Just before the Second World War, the BNCI had established itself as the most dynamic French bank.

Accounting and Mechanical data processing room at the BNCI's custodian Center for the securities in Dinan (France), in 1939 - BNP Paribas Historical Collections
Accounting and Mechanical data processing room at the BNCI’s custodian Center for the securities in Dinan (France), in 1939 – BNP Paribas Historical Collections
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