In September, I attended the Finovate Fall technology conference in New York City. This annual, demonstration-focused event is one in a series of yearly conferences hosted by Seattle-based Finovate Group. I’ve attended the group’s flagship two-day showcase a few times and always look forward to penciling it into my calendar (FYI, the 2014 New York conference is scheduled for Sept. 23-24).
The last time I wrote for The Callahan Report, I discussed the “5 Areas Of Innovation All Credit Unions Need To Monitor” based largely on my experiences at Finovate. Even though presenters, which ranged from established companies to startups, had only seven minutes to sell a discriminating audience on their financial and banking technology innovations, many managed to make a lasting impression.
But I don’t want to rehash what I saw on stage. Instead, I want to talk about what I saw in the audience: Hundreds of attendees that have a deep interest in technology and financial services. Finovate attendees are there to see the latest and greatest in technology and are savvy enough about the field to develop a business case for why their organization might or might not want to adopt a new solution. They are business people who understand how to translate their technology know-how into bottom-line opportunities.
If a credit union wants to leverage the best technology solutions to better serve its members, then it must cultivate this kind of skill set. These people aren’t as rare as you might believe; they exist at your credit union. The question is, have you identified them? Do they have a seat at your planning table? What about among the executive rank?
The Business Case For Adding A Seat To The Table
No credit union can adopt every technology product or solution that comes to market, so how do you build a dynamic organization that can continually filter through the options and identify the best path forward?
American Banker ran an interesting piece earlier this year about the mindsets that hold back financial institutions. One of those mindsets is the Jetson who is “convinced the bank's existence rides on the latest technology craze.” A credit union — or any financial institution, for that matter — shouldn’t follow a trend merely because it’s hot. Likewise, it shouldn’t reject an opportunity out of hand simply because it has already decided to do something else. Rather, you need a process embedded in the organization wherein you look at new opportunities and decide whether and why you want to move forward with one.
The days of the three-year or five-year technology plan are over. Things are changing too fast. A high-level roadmap that accommodates for changing opportunities, however, will allow the credit union to pivot, adapt, and change course as necessary. To thrive in this new era of financial services requires representation from a mindset that has not traditionally been included at the executive level — a technology-oriented mindset coupled with a fundamental understanding of the credit union’s core business needs. People with this kind of mindset can help build a road map. Foster them. Encourage them to explore emerging technologies. And if they discover something is more important than what the credit union is currently working on, then elevate that project and change course. It's this kind of flexibility that ultimately will set you apart.
Even before the Internet became the omnipresent tool it is today, credit unions were wrestling with how to best harness technology. It’s been at the forefront of strategic planning for more than 30 years — remember the debates over credit union ATM adoption — but today technology is a linchpin in how credit unions interact with members as well as how they differentiate themselves from competition. For example, it is likely you have new members with whom you will never interact face-to-face. If it is a young new member, they might be with the credit union for decades and never walk into a branch. And if that’s okay with them, you need the kind of business model in place that makes it okay with you.
Technology has come further, faster than we ever could have predicted, and it's not slowing down. But instead of being overwhelmed at the breadth of possibilities suddenly at your doorstep, ask yourself a few simple questions:
How do we choose the solutions that will have the most impact on the credit union as a cooperative?
How do we position the credit union so what we adopt provides distinct value and services compared to our competitors?
Is there revenue potential? Yes, technology can be — and for many credit unions already is — a significant core competency and a catalyst for meaningful growth in areas such as attracting new members, loans, deposits, and non-interest income.
If Not IT, Then Who?
Who is ultimately responsible for making major technology decisions at your credit union? According to the 2013 results from Callahan’s annual Technology Priorities Survey, the people who are closest to the organization’s technology plan are typically two or three positions removed from the senior managers making the most important decisions (see graph). Technology is no longer solely a back-office function, and to turn it into a forward-looking business competency you need someone who understands what is happening at the cutting edge of technology, someone you believe would be comfortable working at a Silicon Valley startup. After all, financial startups are where exciting stuff is happening. Make sure you have people on staff who are watching and learning from these external forces because that kind of second-hand observation will help put your organization on a flexible, cost-efficient path forward.
Of course, in addition to being hip to technology, this person must also understand, and ideally have had experience in, the business side of the credit union. They then need to be able to balance their knowledge against the needs of the member and translate all that into a technology strategy that can fuel growth for the organization. In my 15 years in the industry, I’ve seen these people in almost every organization. Surprisingly, often they are not part of the technology team or IT department. Instead, they are technology evangelists who work in all areas of the business. They haven’t necessarily pigeonholed their career in technology.
So how do you identify the best candidates within your credit union? Start by asking who has the reputation around the office. Who is attending conferences like Finovate or reading up on Silicon Valley innovations and startups? Who has such a case of technology fever, or fervor, that they always have the latest gadget? Who talks about — and uses — new resources, solutions, apps, and websites to help them better manage their own finances?
There is generally someone in every office that is constantly floating around new ideas. They are genuinely interested in helping the credit union evolve and succeed, but they are frequently in a position where all they can do is suggest ideas. They also are likely to be reporting up to someone who doesn’t have the same grasp of technology potential that they do.
What You Can Do Today
It is easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm of your potential tech giants, that’s why it is imperative you look for a balanced skill set. You need to make decisions based on solid business practices, not fads.
If you’re not comfortable promoting someone who offers these additional skills, then consider creating a technology strategy working group and ask for volunteers. This will help you evaluate internal talent and identify possible future executive candidates. Just be sure the right person is leading the charge. You want a mentor for this group who has a handle on technology and the authority to make decisions.
If you’ve identified the perfect person, then why wait to promote them? Investing in him or her today could have a significant positive, measurable impact on both the credit union and its leaders. The complementary skills they bring to the executive table need to be embedded in the senior team at some point and likely are creeping in already. Give the new leader objectives, listen to their ideas, and hold them accountable. Let them make a business case and be open to new directions. Perhaps most importantly, give yourself permission to, on occasion, fail to meet your goals — that’s an unfortunate possibility when you are striving to adopt the next great thing.
Finally, tap your membership. Survey your members to get a better idea of their member experience. Ask them what they believe their needs are. What services or solutions do they use at other financial institutions? What have they experienced at other institutions that can help define opportunities for the credit union? Once you’ve identified your tech-savvy members, further engage them. Form a focus group or member committee that allows them to identify or vet ideas and act as a sounding board for leaders.
What You Want For Tomorrow
A technology seat at the executive table isn’t about changing your core values or goals. It’s about thriving, not surviving, in a new era of financial services. You need products and services that differentiate and generate value for the credit union and its members. To thrive at this endeavor requires a complementary technological skill set. Start cultivating that skill set today for continued success tomorrow.