Can Credit Unions be the P.C. of the Financial Industry?

Today, all whilst basking in the sun of a near perfect spring day in Wisconsin, I stumbled across something which connected some very elusive dots in my head.

First, I would like to preface this post with stating that being a peon in such a vast industry, juggling regulation with missions and visions, I try to stay well versed in the happenings of Credit Union land. My inbox is flooded with daily links and articles and if I am not consumed with daily monotonous tasks, I am reading, soaking it all in. This is where these “dots” I was taking about, came from.

Article after article, interview after interview, I’m reading about issues, lack of innovation, the struggles of relevancy in terms of everything from target demographics to the latest mortgage regulations; let’s not get started on mortgage regulations… In terms of the next big idea, the solution, the one that will work, it is probably out there and I’ve probably read about it.

If all of these issues, and solutions to said issues, are floating around the interweb somewhere, why isn’t anyone doing anything about them? I’ve read theories on that too. One interesting theory poses the idea that our decision makers are just getting too old, stuck in their ways, and refuse to innovate and move forward. Maybe. Another good one portrays the Credit Union world in shambles, losing the people who really care about it and its vision, leaving nothing different then bank tellers and paper pushers working for a pay check and nothing more. Perhaps. I can’t vouch for the validity of either of these ideas, so I will let you draw your own conclusions.

There are more; dozens, maybe hundreds of ideas, waiting to be read by peons across the nation. This is where my lunch break became ever so enlightening.

I’ve just started reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell titled “Outliers.” To include a quick synopsis, it outlines that circumstances in which success in individuals is created. And here, I will shamelessly plug this book because I am really enjoying reading it thus far, and you might too – buy it here.

This particular passage of the book spoke to me, not only because I had a real life application for what Gladwell was saying, but also because it focuses around computers and technology, and short of being involved in the I.T. world, I enjoy my gadgets and all things techy.

Computers were once grand machines, taking up rooms, huge colossal beasts with a price tag to match. Access to them was sparse. There was no such thing as a personal computer, which was O.K. because back in the 60’s and early 70’s, no one knew the computer for anything but the elusive and mysterious creature it was to most. Gladwell explains that during the introduction of the personal computer in the mid 1970’s, there was an age ideal for taking the industry by storm and creating progress within it.

Gladwell goes on to say that if you were too young, you would miss the window as you were in high school and had no means to actively pursue this path. If you were older, you most likely were already employed by IBM and had a pretty good handle on what was going on in the world of computers.

Now we are getting somewhere.

Those smart and stubborn employees, who were just a little too old, a little too seasoned, at IBM thought they had it all figured out. They knew computers, and they were the future. Personal computers were tiny, inadequate machines made for hobbyists, and weren’t worth a second look. Why mess around with this tiny innovation while you were creating comprehensive, gigantic mainframes in a billion dollar industry?

Well we all know why now, don’t we? Personal computers, smart phones, most of us can’t even remember what it was like to live without them, let alone imagine a day where they cease to exist. Oh the agony!
So how could IBM miss this and not jump on the band wagon? How did the leading manufacture of mainframes at the time not recognize this fantastic advancement as one of the most profound technological stepping stones as the proverbial needle in the haystack?

Because IBM was the computer industry. They were just a little too old, a little too seasoned to see past what they already knew and embrace the change that was happening within their cherished industry. They were so blinded by their idea of what computers were and where they thought were going, that they failed to see the brilliance and significance of what then seemed like a drop in the bucket.

Now you see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Credit Unions as an industry, well, were really pretty young, just as IBM was a fairly young company when the rise of the personal computer took the world by storm. But have we aged too much? Have we become too old, too seasoned, to take advantage of what is before us because we know what is best, and we see the future of the industry? We’ve been doing it for years and have been very successful at it! So what happens when things change? Needs change, technology changes, everything and everyone around us will change. Will we?

Will Google wallet or PayPal “out-bank” us? Will they be the young, innovative genius behind the personal computer of the Credit Union’s IBM phase?

Is the next great leader out there, but we are ignoring them because we know what is best and they are too young or too ignorant to truly understand the real trials and tribulations of the industry?

I am in no means saying that Credit Unions are destined to fail. I simply mean to question whether or not we would know what the next move was if it was staring us in the face. Or maybe, we would simply swat it away, like a bug buzzing around our head. We may be too seasoned to hear this bug for the butterfly it truly is.

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I find it very interesting how much these two stories, from very different industries, seem to connect to one another. Maybe the answer to our problems is found outside of the industry, or maybe not. Maybe it already exists and we’ve yet to capitalize on the idea. There are a lot of what if’s and not very many definite answers, but one thing I am very sure of, is that we are upon the dawn of our own “personal computer” era.

My hope for Credit Unions is that they thrive. I hope there is an answer to all its ailments and this unrest in merely a blip in our long, and successful journey. I also hope Credit Unions can be as forward thinking in the future as they were in the past. We’ve come so far on innovation; we’ve helped so many by being innovative, why stop when we think we’ve found somewhere comfortable to rest.

Most importantly, I hope to help make sure we ARE the future of the financial industry, rather than just a stepping stone to greater one; the personal computer of the financial industry.

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