I find it hard not to behave like a huffy teenager when people say things like “disruption” and “fintechs” in my presence. The pluralisation of fintech, in particular, kills me: I roll my eyes (for real), I huff, I puff, I flex my hands and shuffle in my seat.
Fintechs (in plural, meaning startups and other things I didn’t think I would have to deal with before retirement, such as scrum or blockchain) and disruption belong to the lexicon of terms that signal a very specific and very banal conversation is about to begin. It’s a conversation about containment, engagement, “ecosystem”, vague partnerships and limited POCs; a conversation that could boil down to let me talk to you about all the things we’re doing to avoid the thing we know we will inevitably have to do before long.
I don’t want to have this conversation ever again, and maybe you don’t either, so let me help us move it along. Fintech isn’t a thing – it’s actually a moment in time. Repeat after me: fintech isn’t a thing. Financial technology is neither new, nor does it mean what you’re trying to make it mean, and although I’m all for using terms carelessly if we all know what we mean, I’m not sure we all do. Know what we mean, that is.
Startups have always been around, as has the pursuit of new technology solutions for banking delivery. I should know – I’ve been in startups when there was no hype and it was just a job that made your parents nervous, and I’ve been doing financial IT since green screens and super users. No, I’m not old – I’m vintage. And because I’m vintage, I can say to you: focus on what makes this special; this moment in time when technological viability making so much new stuff possible at a time when we’re willing and able to think about them.
We’re in this delicious moment when human-centred design, analytics and system connectivity come together to say hey there is another way. And as we try to figure out what this other way would look like in banking, we find that there’s even more tech coming of age that would allow us to totally reimagine the world (if we have it in us to do so).
This moment in time is a thing, and it’s here
Fintech isn’t a thing, but the radical change we are navigating is. The ability to reimagine and rebuild human experience is here. The heady feeling that we can actually make everything about this world more accessible, softer and friendlier, like your new iOS interface, is the most deeply rebellious thought humanity has been presented us with in decades. It’s not fluffy – it’s radical. It’s equalising and inclusive, and is removing some of the bastions of control and power in human interactions. (Removing them, but not yet replacing them, thus creating moments of jarring inconsistency, logical gaps and expectations for leaps and bounds.)
Change is messy, and that’s where we are. The language you choose to describe what’s going on has more to do with how you feel about it – personally and organisationally – than what’s actually happening, which is in flight, in flux, and won’t be really ready for the historians’ verdict until the fat lady sings. Till then, some rush forward, some resist, some look around baffled trying to claim we need to slow right down because the things we’re playing with are complicated.
It’s not complicated
Let me paint you a picture. In fact, let’s do this together. Draw a line for me. At one end, put systems, and on the other, humans. Banking delivers services on this line, leveraging humans and systems, and constrained by both. Yes? Yes. Now turn your line into a triangle of similarly annotated sides. Bottom-left corner says systems/systems, bottom-right corner says humans/humans, and the top says humans/systems. So far so good? We do this stuff already. We work system to system, human to human and system to human. It’s not always simple, but it’s a nut we’ve already cracked. Yes? Yes.
So what is it we’re actually doing when we do all that? We manage data – representing assets, client intent and important ways of identifying the clients, the asset provenance and the intent. We protect this data while delivering on this intent. We are trusted with data for a purpose. Trust, data, purpose. Somehow, we’re plugging it all together to create the economy – the making money part.
OK, now back to your triangle. Put trust at the bottom-left-hand corner. Now add (less) next to it. Trust is a core component of the process, but new tech allows us to be trust-less, not in that we don’t need to trust but we don’t need to worry about humans being sneaky. System to system connectivity, hard-coded executables and immutable shared ledgers, APIs bypassing human meddling: technology allows us to overcome our worst selves by allowing for trust-lessness on one end of the spectrum.
As you follow the two sides of your triangle towards the ‘human’ end, you will meet data at the top. You have analytics, algorithms and APIs stitching it all together, but really, at the heart of it, you have humans producing data and querying the data they produced to make money, which is what this is about. And that’s what sits at the far-right corner of your triangle, when the human who is now liberated by the trust-less system interfaces with the human who has leveraged the best of the data analytics capabilities, has produced the most amazing algorithms and delivered, human to human, whatever it is they deliver into the economy.
This part is meant to be a social thing. This part is, according to the makers of the things that make this moment in time so exciting, a sharing and shared thing, for the first time ever engaging in dependency, not because there’s no choice, but because it’s the best choice.
There. Done. It’s not complicated. Sure the tech involved is, and it will keep getting more complex, but your engineers have no issue with this so you should have no fear. The shape of what you call fintech and how it fits together isn’t complicated. The challenge it presents us and our existing organisational paradigms isn’t hard to understand – it’s just hard to stomach, so we talk of fintech and disruption and run all sorts of pilots.
This is about reimagining the world on a human scale. We can. The tech is here. The design capabilities are here. On the system to human continuum, the systems are ready. Are the humans willing?
So next time you’re about to say the word fintech, or speak of disruption, check yourself. This moment in time is heady and confusing and full of possibility and complexity and choice. But like all moments in time, it will pass and what we did with it will be all that it will be defined by, all we will be judged by. And all that matters.
Image by Al Medwedsk, Shutterstock.com