Issues : Strategy

Banks Face the Imperative to Innovate


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I’ve seen enough to believe there are no barriers to innovation in banking. Certainly, there are speed bumps, gate crossings and rumble strips that banks will encounter on the road to innovation, but nothing that flat out prevents them from getting there. Indeed, there are a growing number of banks, including community banks, that have made important achievements that serve as good examples of innovation. (For a great list, see the Best of FinXTech Award Winners announced at Nasdaq this week.) Some innovation projects have been quite ambitious, others more modest, but they all spring from the same source—a recognition that banks need to begin simplifying and speeding up various aspects of their businesses to keep pace with (or at least, not fall too far behind) where the customer is heading.

Where is the pressure to innovate coming from? The popular boogeymen are fintech companies that compete with banks in payments, lending and personal financial management. But companies in that space are simply reacting to a much deeper trend, which is the profound way that technology is changing our lives. Banks must do the same, and a growing number of them seem to realize it.

On April 26, Bank Director hosted the FinXTech Annual Summit at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York. The event brought together 200-plus bank executives, directors and fintech executives to explore how technology is changing the industry. Underlying themes were innovation, the opportunities for partnership between banks and fintech companies, and how banks can move forward.

I believe that most bankers understand the imperative to innovate around key aspects of their business, whether it’s payments, mobile in all its many permutations, lending, new account onboarding or data. What many of them lack is a roadmap for how to innovate. Actually, a “roadmap” is probably the wrong metaphor to describe what they need because innovation is really a process rather than a destination—something you do rather than a place that you go. So maybe bankers need something like a yoga chant (Om!) to help focus their energy as they stretch to innovate.

There are several issues that need to be dealt with, starting with a vision of what projects to undertake. They can’t change everything at once, so where should they start? Here are a couple of questions they should ask. What are the greatest friction points within their most important businesses? Where are they seeing the greatest competition, and how would digitalization tilt the competitive balance more in their favor? What has the greatest potential to positively impact their profitability?

Innovation costs money, so they will have to budget for it. Based on my conversations with bankers that have begun to automate key parts of their operations, they should expect their innovation projects to cost more and take longer than originally estimated. Innovation can be messy, so perseverance and patience are important. They also have to make sure that their bank’s culture will embrace change. When I say “culture,” I really mean people. Banks must ensure that their employees are open to new ways of doing things, because innovation will change job descriptions, processes and work habits, and many of their staff will feel threatened by this. It’s not enough that executive management teams and boards commit to a large project like a new automated underwriting platform for small business lending and allocate the necessary resources to make that happen. They will also have to sell this change to people in their organization whose buy-in is critical.

For most banks—and particularly community banks with a finite amount of money to spend—innovation isn’t something they can do by themselves, so banks will have to work in partnership with fintech companies that can help achieve their objectives. This is more complicated than it sounds, because banks and fintech companies have very different perspectives when it comes to how they do business. Banking is a highly regulated industry, so they need a partner who knows how to work within a prescriptive environment that has lots of rules. Fintech companies that have experience working with banks understand this and have learned how to manage change in an ecosystem that tends to discourage it.

The innovation imperative is real, and banks must act upon it. Their world is changing faster than they realize, and the longer they wait to embrace that change, the further behind they will fall.