Opportunity costs for cynics
Since COVID hit, I have lost count of how many times I have been asked on panels, interviews and webinars, “what is the opportunity for banks and fintechs in this new normal?” and if I am getting asked a lot, others are getting asked a lot so can we please stop this nonsense?
Unless you are in a specific vertical or offer a specific set of services, there is no industry-wide, generic opportunity that wasn’t there before.
The things banks need help with may have been cast in sharper relief by the pressures of COVID but they are not new.
The things that hold banks back from seizing the day – from procurement and compliance to risk averse over-reliance on tried and tested business models and from knowing the future will be different but not knowing what that means to haziness as to what their differentiating value-add may be in ten years… these things have not changed. Maybe COVID underlined them and shone another light at them but let’s not pretend we discovered something new here.
The need for start-ups to be profitable businesses and not engines converting venture capital to user experience (UX) is not new.
The need for value-driven success metrics rather than valuation-based eulogies is not new.
Nothing is new here.
Even the pressures aren’t new.
COVID has simply made the things that were urgent, more so.
The things that we knew were obstacles even more pronounced. But it didn’t shed light in the dark. It didn’t open doors and it most definitely didn’t accelerate adoption, despite the hollow triumphalism of banking panelists.
Signing a fintech pledge with Tech Nation is great. But what took you so long? And what are you doing next?
Investing in your digital channels is also great. But what have you been doing all this time? And why are you still thinking of the world in terms of channels? It’s not 1999 any more.
Celebrating the success the banks had is equally great.
Actually it is.
Because anything and everything banks delivered during COVID, from extra features on their apps to changes to loan repayment schedules, was a feat of human creativity and hard work. So they should be proud of and celebrate their humans who pulled out all the stops. But let’s be honest with ourselves: had the banks invested in infrastructure a few years ago, what took two months of sleepless nights would have been done in an afternoon. And that is not great.
Neither is the complacency that comes with “we made it”.
Because, if anything, it shows we are not learning.
It shows that COVID not only fails to create an opportunity, it seems to not even create urgency around the opportunities we have been missing and the cost of that inaction.
Between a rock and a hard place
The fact that there is no renewed opportunity here doesn’t mean that the opportunity cost doesn’t keep rising. Up and up it goes with every day we waste, knowing what needs fixing but looking the other way hoping the next guy will fix it. Dealing with the urgent at the cost of the important. With the flashy at the expense of the impactful. And relying on our people to pull rabbits out of hats with inadequate tools and shaky corporate support.
The most common feeling among bankers is how much we achieve to do within our organisations and despite them. The fight and uphill struggle becomes a point of pride, a type of corporate self-flagellation, individual and organisational self-harming we all perversely value.
So don’t talk to me about opportunity.
Talk to me about opportunity cost.
Talk to me about how you measure the opportunity cost of all the things you didn’t do that would have put you in a good place when COVID hit.
And no, your remote working resilience isn’t what I want to hear. Especially as your HR policies and risk matrices mean that, once the office is open again but teams have to distance and take turns, you either have to equip everyone’s home office, mandate presence or re-write the HR policy, so that gets added to the long list of governance items you need to get round to fixing to to get out of your own way.
From procurement checklists to testing and go-live schedules and everything in-between.
Talk to me about what it cost you as an organisation to not have done all the things that were too hard, before COVID. All the things that you decided were not worth the cost, risk or effort. All the things that would have made coping with COVID easier. Because, had you done those things, your infrastructure would now empower your teams and customers to deal with the human tragedy without needing to work weekends and spend endless hours waiting for responses to queries that would only be truthfully answered with, “we can’t do that but some folks are pulling all nighters to make it happen” – so they are not answered at all.
If the COVID crisis presents us with an opportunity, that is not to do things differently but to be honest with ourselves as to the damage we have incurred for not having done things differently already, for squandering the time and opportunities we have been having over the last decade or so.
That’s the conversation.
Don’t talk to me about opportunity.
I want to hear about opportunity cost.
I want to hear about the industry taking this moment and the pressures it brought to realise that we have long known the price of everything and the value of almost nothing. Definitely not the human labour that could have been channeled to creatively serving our communities if we had given them the tools to do so. And the time.. that was instead spent patching 40-year old technology that we had the opportunity to change… oh… I don’t know… about 40 times in the last few years.
The only new opportunity COVID gives us is to be honest about the opportunities we missed, the cynicism that led us there and the size of the cost that was carried.
And when we do that, we will realise the only true thing about opportunity, now and always, is that up close, as my old boss used to say, it always looks like hard work.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!