Las Vegas has the reputation of bringing out the bad boy or girl in all of us. Who among us hasn’t witnessed a timid, straight-laced friend end up hip hop-dancing with twins from Sao Paulo at the Ghost Bar while wearing an Oakland Raiders bandana and sucking Jagermeister shots? Weird things do happen in Vegas, and this week was no exception: for the past four days, bankers have been talking about being innovators.
In the current hard-nosed competitive environment, this year’s BAI Retail Delivery did not produce a new “big bang” trend or hot technology on the showroom floor as has sometimes been the case in years past. Instead, bankers seemed very humble this year, struggling with how to be different competitively and searching for the next big idea.
In a period of intense commoditization, our Gonzo hats go off to the team at BAI for setting up an agenda focused on innovation. Efforts to mix up the discussions and thinking were clearly evident in the event’s structure. What’s ironic, however, was how bankers responded to the task of an innovation-based agenda. Bluntly, the call for innovation mostly brought a flurry of presentations that repeated a growing list of now clichéd examples of innovation. Starbucks seemed to be mentioned every five minutes. The iPod was picked out as an inspiration ad nauseum. PayPal, MySpace, YouTube – all great innovation stories, but much of the content basically said, “Banks need to be more innovative like these guys” rather than focusing on how and where banks might innovate themselves. The agenda for innovation was a terrific move, but we’re a long way from flushing out the “whats” and “hows” of this new mandate for bank executives.
Hamel Shoots and Scores!
Our vote this year for the best keynote speaker goes to management guru Gary Hamel, who spoke with jumping-bean gestures about the need to innovate the way we manage organizations. The message from Hamel was ambitious, profound and aimed right between the eyes of bankers: the business world changes too fast for the rigid, top down management structures that banks love to build and defend. Using examples from Toyota, Google, W.L. Gore and Whole Foods, Hamel urged bankers to let it rip in terms of moving control from the executive suites out to the front line. Examples of what these creative, successful companies are doing – performance reviews done 100% by peers, completely voluntary project participation, 10% of all employee time devoted to “tinkering” – clearly got attendees uncomfortable, which might have been the best thing about it.
And this, GonzoBankers, is where the real irony surfaced. Right after the Hamel fire-up, the two of us jumped out to the expo floor and saw a lot of stuff geared at making branches more efficient or even empowering customers through self service, but there was not one system or tool or idea that excited us about empowering the employee at the front line.
A panel discuss led by BAI’s Paul McAdam the next day echoed a similar theme – success at the front line does not depend on rabid sales pitches, but rather on unshackled, knowledgeable employees who can create that memorable “Umpqua-like” experience many banks crave right now. The most interesting thing to watch will be if banks can really let go. Are we really serious about letting the front line drive the place, or will our industry just slip back to aimlessly giving compliments to Starbucks and Steve Jobs?
Mobile Buzzes Louder
One of the nice surprises this year was how quickly companies and products concerning the re-emergence of mobile banking have hit the vendor showroom. Several vendors stood ready to demo cool new approaches to Round 2 of banking from the cell phone. Tripp Rackley, former founder of nFront, had a band of young techies from his next startup, Firethorn, to demonstrate their vision of mobile banking and payments. Other firms with mobile visions to share included:
Fragmented Fraud Tools Everywhere
The banking industry’s focus on fraud and security was in full gear on the showroom floor:
Boy, there were plenty of tools on the floor. Unfortunately, the bulk of these tools were “point” solutions that create yet another integration challenge for the CIO wanting to seamlessly connect the online banking channel, bill pay and core systems with risk management tools. To get real legs in the future, we expect one of three things will need to happen:
Nice stuff coming from lots of entrepreneurs, but the watch word here is integration.
Onshoring Comes to the Floor
It may be said that the world is flat and jobs are being exported to India. On the flip side, the BAI floor demonstrated the “onshoring” activity that is occurring as foreign-based technology companies attempt to crack the U.S. market. No one could ignore the beaming orange booth and Virgin Airways flight attendant look-alikes at the Polaris software crib.
Also showing a lot of energy was FNS, a division of Tata Consultancy Services, the largest IT firm in Asia today. But the giddiest vendor on the floor from overseas had to be the folks at i-flex. The whole team, including Sunil Rober, Sid Rastogi and Penney Richardson, was button-lipped but dying to let us know about a major retail bank signing that was about to take place in the U.S. market. After several years of trying, it seems iFlex has nabbed a real one.
Check 21 in full steam, but old news
There were any number of vendors – Addmaster, NCR and Digital Check Corporation, to name a few – offering hardware/software to automate the scanning/imaging of checks at the teller line, some with integration to teller systems that would analyze float and place holds. While this isn’t the next big strategic breakthrough for most attendees, it does represent a nice one-time operational cost and efficiency pick-up.
The hardware bores
Canon… Craden… Epson… HP… the usual suspects were all there with the newest gear. Bottom line? The boxes are a little smaller, a little faster, a little more functional and a little cheaper than last year. Hmmm. We could have said this in 2005, or 2004, or 1999. Nap time.
Most Pragmatic Technology of the Year Award
Saylent Technologies, for its very cool Y-Debit application, which helps banks manage debit card information to increase revenue and cross-sell among cardholders. President Tyson Nargassans and his team want to tell banks “thars gold in them there debit cards” and plenty of data that’s still untapped.
An honorable mention to E-Funds, which was showing a pretty neat program called QualiFile that combines a credit score and ChexSystems deposit data into a single look and decision tool for platform employees.
The booth that made us feel the shortest
Hands down, the Visa booth with the tall and striking Olympic volleyball player Kerri Walsh on hand to sign autographs. Steve tried to hang loose with Kerri, but basically babbled like an idiot.
The Heading Downstream Award
Corillian, for a timely announcement of the ASP delivery of its product to smaller institutions. The well-known Voyager platform has seemed too complex and costly for folks below the Top 100 banks in the country. Corillian’s move to target its ASP to Top 1000 institutions will turn up the competition with solid players Digital Insight and Online Resources. CEO Alex Hart and Brian Bodell were feeling especially Gonzo with Terence after this announcement.
The “Whatever happened to?” award
A tie between CRM and self-service kiosks. In 2004 and 2005, respectively, these two technologies were hotter than uncut Japanese horseradish on the BAI floor. You couldn’t go five booths without seeing another vendor with a solution. This year? Nary a solution to be found for either. Maybe these were examples of two ideas we knew customers really, really wanted – until we actually tried to apply them to customers.
The First Old Friend Spotted on the Floor Award
Goes to former Technology Credit Union exec and strategy consultant Ted Thames (we mean the friendship is old, not Ted).
The First Bank to Shamelessly Ask for Free T Shirts Award
First Independent Bancorp – these ladies seemed happy as can be to get their collector edition Gonzo tees.
You can tell they were storing them in a safe place so they wouldn’t get lost.
So, can we really break out?
OK…we went to the convention to talk about being unconventional. Until next year, bankers will be going to the R&D lab and the customer experience center and (dare we say) the front-line employees to figure out new ways to service customers. There are promises to break away from the old mold, to be the rebels, mavericks, the sheer brain-popping non-conformists that can revolutionize financial services. As we lined up for taxis to the airport behind an orderly line of bankers in their dark-suit banker uniforms, we could only hope that this is possible.
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