90 years of employee training at Societe Generale

Training was introduced at Societe Generale in 1921 and was long considered to be the best in the financial market. It is a real trademark of the company.

Early days

Prior to World War I, the company relied on on-the-job learning, but it introduced a training programme in 1921. That year, the Personnel Department launched upgrade training courses. Societe Generale was the first bank to apply the Astier Act (passed in 1919) relating to the organisation of technical industrial and commercial training. Apart from accounting, these first courses took the form of lectures, in which the employees played no active role. They consisted of 90 hours of legal courses followed over 24 months and were open to incumbent employees aged at least 21. At the end of the training, they sat an examination to become senior officers. These courses continued until just after World War II. In 1953, nearly 260 employees, one fifth of whom were women, signed up for the course.

A year after the introduction of the upgrade courses, the Personnel Department created another course to prepare candidates for the new examination for admission to the grades of Deputy Office Manager and Assistant Director. The three-hour tests were held on a Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. They covered both theoretical and practical topics: branch organisation, stock exchange operations and balance sheet analysis. In order to increase their chances of success, employees were given training at the Trocadero and Haussmann. Outside Paris, courses were given by a bank officer. The first written tests for employees in greater Paris differed from those for employees of provincial, African and foreign branches.

A further aptitude test was required to become a Deputy Department Manager. Applicants selected a speciality, either banking or securities. There was then a written test with two essays - one on their chosen speciality, the other on the operation of Societe Generale. This was followed by a 20-minute oral examination on banking or securities.

A proliferation of training courses and the emergence of a benchmark company

The success of these first initiatives led the Personnel Department to increase the number of training courses, and a number of directors of the bank established themselves as references in the field.

As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s and typewriters and comptometers became more widespread, Societe Generale established schools to train its personnel in these new tools intended to rationalise work in the banking sector. It opened a school for typing, another to train comptometer operators and a third for shorthand. All three prepared students for examinations. In 1929, language courses were introduced in partnership with the Berlitz Institute. These were mostly for English until the 1950s, when the syllabus was extended to include Spanish and German.

But the courses still lacked coordination and cohesion. That is why, in 1930, a committee was established to overhaul the training programme. An education section was introduced in the Personnel Department. A number of major decisions were taken. Firstly, the upgrade course became the first level. Its content was revised, particularly the accounting lessons which were seen as obscure, overly detailed and lacking in general ideas. The financial courses were also abolished to retain only those on banking and capital operations. Next, it was decided to merge the tests for the Office Manager aptitude examination. Lastly, the upgrade courses were opened to the bellboys. Often very young when they joined the bank - between 12 and 14 years old - these boys had only completed their primary schooling. The aim was to supplement their schooling with courses in French, Maths and Geography. At 17, they could then sit an examination enabling them to become employees of the company and begin their professional education.

The scheme was complemented by partnerships with external institutions. Every year, Societe Generale sent 10 employees to the bank’s technical education centre, which trained beginners required to follow courses, either under the law on apprenticeship (under 18s) or under the bank’s collective agreement. This centre prepared its students for vocational bank training certificates (CAP) and the Brevet Professionnel (Professional Certificate). The technical banking institute of the Conservatoire des arts et métiers supplemented the training of young employees aiming to reach upper management. The courses were held on weekdays. Employees took 50% of the time required to follow these courses from their working hours and the other 50% from their free time. Lastly, the centre for advanced banking studies at the Paris Political Sciences School ("Sciences Po") provided courses for future upper managers. All the examinations marking the successful conclusion of these external courses gave employees the right to “diploma points” which translated into salary increases and bonuses proportional to the results obtained. A number of Societe Generale directors were involved in these courses, for example Henri Ardant, who lectured at both the Ecole nationale des arts et métiers and Sciences Po. Some even wrote what have become reference works, for example Henri Terrel and Henri Lejeune, both former directors, who published Le traité des opérations commerciales de banque (Treatise on Commercial Banking Operations). After World War II, it was another Managing Director, Jacques Ferronnière, who rose to eminence as a result of his handbook Les Opérations de Banque (Banking Operations).

The immediate Post-War period saw the bank continuing to innovate. Whilst still retaining the earlier courses, it developed the concept of the branch-school. The first came into being in Paris in 1956. It accepted young school-leavers, offering them the opportunity of immersing themselves in branch life. These beginners moved from one department to another: they generally started in Portfolios or Account Operations, then moved on to Securities and Accounting. The aim was to initiate them - in three or four months - into the mechanics of posting transactions and centralising accounts. Their instructors introduced them to cheques, bank bills, bank orders and all types of securities. In the Portfolio Department, for example, the students handled bills of exchange, drew up discount vouchers and collection slips and filled in various journals. The 1950s also saw Societe Generale staff attending courses at the International Banking Summer School for bank personnel wishing to improve their knowledge of international operations. But the great innovation came in 1960 with the establishment of the Ecole de Vichy, which made its mark on several generations of employees.

An institution: the Ecole de Vichy

Vichy was chosen not only for the out-of-season accommodation facilities it offered, but also because the bank had large premises there. The new school, established in 1960, benefited from the experience acquired through the branch-school in Paris but catered for other students. The courses were aimed at Level 1 employees, providing them with all the basic knowledge they needed, including foreign transactions, during eight-week courses which ran from October to May. It also trained foreign employees working in subsidiaries outside Metropolitan France. In 1976, 13 Africans, 16 Belgians and 5 Spaniards completed courses. The growing success of the Vichy school obliged the Training Department to increase the number of sessions from 6 to 9 between 1960 and 1968, then to 17 in 1974. This meant that the premises needed to be extended. In 1976, the school occupied seven buildings, compared with two when it had opened. Employees undergoing training also benefited from a 100-seat conference room, a waiting room, a lecture theatre and the availability of instructors, whose number increased from three in 1960 to seven in 1976. But the training centre distinguished itself above all by its educational methods. To begin with, teaching was based on student participation, with the introduction of group exercises and role-plays. Later, trainers used methods that were modern and dynamic at the time: VCRs and overhead projectors. Finally, from 1974 the upgrade courses were supplemented by training courses. The reputation of the course was such that recruiters from competitors began to canvass Group employees, sometimes even as they left the premises, to invite them to join other French banking establishments.

At the same time, Societe Generale continued to develop training in Paris and in provincial towns. Centres opened up at the Boulevard des Italiens and Rue du Helder in 1970, and an audiovisual department - also in Paris - was established in 1971. Language courses were not neglected either: partnerships were developed with the British Council and the London School, which provided audiovisual instruction for employees from 1969.

The Training Department also started to publish its own newsletter in November 1971: the Bulletin de liaison du service formation. This newsletter contained economic and financial news items, articles about changes in banking technology, new legal and tax requirements and information specific to Societe Generale such as important notices and circulars. By the beginning of the 1980s, the Bank had a particularly efficient and well-structured Training Department. It consisted of five sub-departments: the general banking training centre in Rue du Helder in Paris, which prepared employees for vocational bank training certificates (CAP), the Brevet Professionnel (Professional Certificate), and Office Manager and Deputy Department Manager examinations; the commercial and technical training centre in Paris, at Rue de la Michodiere; the international activity centres; the advanced training centre for young managers, communications and hierarchical relations; and the technology and financing centre. The latter three moved into the Tour Ariane, at La Defense, in 1983. This merger heralded the changes that took place in the training programme during the 1980s.

Moving into the 1980s

The economic and financial environment, developments in technology and changes in the internal organisation of Societe Generale itself led to an overhaul of the training programme. In 1983, the typing school - which still trained 30 internees per year - was closed. One year later, the extension of the RTA (branch terminal network) led management to close the school for comptometer operators. The last employees to use these machines would be trained through apprenticeships. In 1985, it was decided to undertake an in-depth reorganisation of all training. This had two aims: to give departments more flexible and responsive structures by moving away from the concept of centralised training towards that of operational and functional branches; and to reduce the distinction between courses for management and those for employees. Better known by the abbreviation HUM/FOR, the newly-created service introduced a new magazine to communicate the Group’s new strategy: this was the birth of Fréquence Formation. But the bank was flexible and, when necessary, retained training centres or schools. IT is doubtless the most eloquent example of this. After having provided limited teaching in this field, Societe Generale established its own IT school in collaboration with the Control Data Institute in 1990, with the intention of training the bank’s future Project Managers in IT.
This ongoing desire to adapt training to the needs of employees and their environment whilst continuing to innovate is still the rule today, enabling the different generations of employees to develop personal and professional skills throughout their careers. 


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