Innovation: Both Homegrown and Outsourced

Let’s put it out there: The banking industry is rising to the many challenges it currently faces, and the key to that ascension is innovation. One clear indication comes from the new report Innovation in Retail Banking 2013, commissioned by IT services conglomerate Infosys and conducted by the European Financial Management & Marketing Association (EFMA), which features a raft of good news.

The study, which surveyed 148 banks in 66 countries, shows that retail institutions around the world are systematically investing in innovation specifically to boost revenue and cut costs. A remarkable 60% of the banks now actually have an innovation strategy, compared to only 37% five years ago. Among other highlights, more than half (58%) say their deployment of new systems will have a positive impact on their ability to innovate even further, 69% are making moves into mobile location-based offerings, and 61% are working on enabling customers to do some form of product personalization. And of course, 77% already have in place or are working on a mobile wallet solution.

What’s just as interesting, however, is how all this innovation is coming into the organization. For example, Denver’s FirstBank is about to become the first regional U.S. bank to launch mobile photo bill pay. But the $13 billion institution, which has  more than 115 locations in both Colorado and neighboring states, didn’t outsource the development of its technology—with 12% of its employee base working in IT, the company developed its own core banking software and 12% of its employee base of about 2,100 works in IT. FirstBank sees this as a competitive advantage, and a way to move fast in response to market demands.

On the other hand, there’s Tioga-Franklin Savings Bank, which has a 140-year history in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. The institution has long prided itself on its reputation for stability, but it has more recently recognized that there must also be change—its numerous manual processes required a major transformation in order to stay competitive. So, after a year-long search, Tioga-Franklin—the bastion of tradition—signed on with Data Center Inc. (DCI), of Hutchinson, Kansas, the force behind the iCore360 core banking software. The bank is now looking forward to significant enhancements in organizational efficiencies through workflow automation and regulatory simplification.

The big picture on change through innovation offers an even more diverse view. One interesting point: as noted in a recent column on the ABA Banking Journal, a remarkable amount of the real innovation seems to be happening in less developed markets.  Many market analyses make the same point.

For example, a broad study from consulting firm BearingPoint found that emerging economies are twice as efficient at innovating as their more developed counterparts. Similarly, PriceWaterhouse Coopers says that U.S. companies are certainly tracking with the shift in innovation strategy, but most pioneers in its study are actually not U.S. companies.

Finally, a contest launched by Accenture and EFMA to find winners of their inaugural global distribution and marketing innovation awards for retail banks handed out plaudits to entries from, among other markets, Nykredit in Denmark, Hana Bank in Korea, BRE Bank in Poland and Aktifbank in Turkey.

It’s not as if in the new world, all the rulebooks should be thrown out. In fact, we still should value industry best practices and see how they apply to us. But there’s also no question that at least some of the rules are changing, and we need to keep pace. Just think who our next great rival might be: Wal-Mart (which officially gave up the banking chase in 2007), Amazon (which clearly has many irons in the fire), Facebook (which has even more), some tiny technology startup, or someone different from all of the above.

In this competitive and rapidly evolving competitive environment, we know that innovation is both the best defense and the best offense. Where that innovation comes from, however, is a different question altogether.

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