William Gibson has said many times “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Of course he means that many innovations being deployed now have been invented some time ago — too many examples to mention. I am reminded about this quote each time I participate in a discussion about technology innovation, and invariably, when we get to specific examples, someone always has to mention that the project/idea is not “really” new.
In 2007 I presented at a Canadian Government CIO conference and talked about IBM’s approach to innovation. One of the examples I described in detail was how we developed and deployed an internal blogging engine, and attracted over 20,000 people that posted over 100,000 times and generated four time as many comments. And here he comes – one of the participants raises his hand and challenges me that “blogging” was not “really” innovation. I could have used the opportunity to talk about about blogging vs. corporate blogging (only now, in 2011, the latter is reaching maturity on Gartner’s hype cycle, when we started in 2005 it was still in Trough of Disillusionment). I decided instead to talk about context, about how what is innovation in one company or department is old news in another. So I asked for a show of hands to see how many of the 150 CIOs in the room have deployed corporate blogging – and had 0 (zero) hands up. I rested my case.
A very similar scenario is developing now when we talk about the “Bank of the Future”. The field is quickly becoming a zoo, with hundreds of pilot projects and companies trying to understand how to move forward.
The questions we are all trying to answer (by “we” I mean the people working in the field of technology innovation for financial services):
- How should banks evolve and transform by using innovations and emerging technologies
- How should banks respond to unconventional competition
- How should banks use design thinking for branches
- How to increase personalization for products, services, and delivery models (social networks, context, location)
- How to improve customer experience through self-service technologies
- How to evolve to next-generation mobile and Internet banking capabilities
And funny enough, each of these questions has either an easy answer (friendly jab: just ask any technology vendor and he will have a suite of products ready to sell to you to solve the problems above…), or is perceived as a trend to follow and monitor, as no one can really predict the future.
To use two more quotes, it is either “each complex problem has a simple solution that is wrong” (a corollary of the Einstein Principle), or “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”.
There are so many ideas that are already deployed in niches – some banks, some countries, and I can predict quite confidently that the moment we will be using technology X for banking, someone will say that Bank Y in country Z has deployed that since 1492. And of course, following the Apple tradition, the wide-scale deployment banks will say that they “got it right”.
Joking aside, what we should be looking for instead is to try to predict at least the class of problems we are facing. Are we in a transformation cycle that has already started, and we will see more of it? More mobile banking, more self service transactions, more beautiful architecture in bank branches, more video and games and tablets? An extrapolation of the present, linear or accelerated? Or we may experience and even trigger a “singularity” (read Accelerando for a taste of what it may mean to humanity), or a “black swan”, through technology innovation that may change (almost) everything?
When we realize that money as we have it today is, fundamentally, eerily similar to what was invented 2500 years ago, or that the “bank branch” has not changed, again “fundamentally”, in 150 years, we may want to either wait for disruption, or make it happen ourselves.