Why Branch Building (Sometimes) Makes Sense

Why Branch Building (Sometimes) Makes Sense

The Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia capsized and sank after striking an underwater rock off Tuscany, in January 2012, resulting in 32 deaths. The ship, carrying 4,252 people, was on the first leg of a cruise around the Mediterranean Sea when the disaster struck. Did the captain of the Costa Concordia care about the average depth of the ocean when he ran his ship aground? Probably not. What he should have been more aware of was the depth under his keel while deviating from his planned route.

Industry reports (including many of Celent’s) make lots of “average depth of the ocean” observations. They are relevant and important – sometimes. In retail for example, there have been an abundance of headlines trumpeting the growth of digital commerce alongside struggling same-store sales at brick-and-mortar locations. Hence the store closings many say. But alongside these overall trends are localized bright spots. Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example, announced strong sales growth and plans to add 43 new stores this year. Considering the growth in digital commerce (average depth of the ocean), the move is nonsense. A more surgical analysis considering market-specific shopping trends tells a different story – and justifies the build.

In retail banking, everyone knows branch footfall has been in decline along with teller transaction volumes – and everyone knows why. Considering these (average depth of the ocean) observations, plans for new branch building is nonsense. More than one analyst and futurist has repeatedly taken this position. But as is usually the case, reality is more complex.

The branch boom in the US has been at the hands of large banks. A historic look at the number of bank branches by asset tier makes this clear. Celent published a report on the topic in 2013 that predicted a steep decline in branch density – something that is now underway.

Source: FDIC, Celent analysis

But, the decline will not be uniformly felt across the asset tiers. In a May 2017 survey of Celent’s Branch Transformation Research Panel, we found that a significant majority of smaller institutions (those with assets less than $10 billion) are planning to increase the number of operational branches over the next two years – just the opposite among larger banks.

Source: Celent Branch Transformation Research Panel, May 2017, n=39

Still not convinced that branch building sometimes makes sense? Kronos published its 2017 FMSI Teller Line Study. FMSI, acquired by Kronos in 2016, provides cloud-based workforce management (WFM) solutions to small banks and credit unions. One aspect of the value it provides clients is monthly benchmarking (since it hosts all the data for its clients). One noteworthy item in its 2017 study is the continuous measured decline in average monthly teller transaction volume from 1992 – 2012. More recently however, transaction volume trends have reversed. In both community banks and credit unions, the trends have been modestly upward  over the past several years.

Source: 2017 FMSI Teller Line Study

Never mind average ocean depth, many US community banks are navigating very different waters than the big banks – and they're planning to build branches. A recent Celent report goes into more detail. 

Takeaways from the Latest Research in Consumer Financial Decision Making

Takeaways from the Latest Research in Consumer Financial Decision Making

Once a year I take a break from industry conferences and vendor analyst days by going to the Boulder Summer Conference on Consumer Financial Decision Making, hosted by the Center for Research on Consumer Financial Decision Making at the Leeds Business School at the  University of Colorado Boulder. Academics, regulators, central bankers, and a handful of private sector people (like me) gather to discuss the latest research in the field. For many bankers much of the content is, frankly, too academic, but there are always some nuggets worth passing along to those who are interested in forging closer connections with their banking customers. My key takeaways follow.

Consumer data is valuable; advertisers & consumers don’t get their fair share

We all know that data is valuable; The Economist has even called it our most valuable resource, the new oil. Banks have historically not done a great job of monetizing the data they have, but neither have consumers. Consider a three-actor model for internet advertising consisting of an advertiser, an ad exchange, and the consumer. In different scenarios (which vary by who has how much information on consumer demographics), the ad exchange typically is the big winner, the advertiser comes in second depending on how much data they have, and the consumer rarely gains any of the economic benefit. Who’s going to step up and design a business that helps consumers monetize the value of their data?

Scope Insensitivity can be used for good

I’ll admit that this is a new concept for me, and one that is completely counterintuitive. Here’s an example from a site called LessWrong:

Once upon a time, three groups of subjects were asked how much they would pay to save 2,000 / 20,000 / 200,000 migrating birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The groups respectively answered $80, $78, and $88. This is scope insensitivity or scope neglect: the number of birds saved – the scope of the altruistic action – had little effect on willingness to pay.

Researchers studied this phenomenon with credit card bills. They found that a group of people struggling with debt tended to pay roughly the same (rounded) amount on their credit card bills each month, regardless of the balance, a classic case of scope insensitivity. Here’s the clever part: it turns out that if people are paying, say, $50 once a month, they’re generally willing to pay roughly that twice a month, thereby improving their financial position over time.

Getting people to take action, let alone change, is really tough

An experiment in the UK tried five different ways to let consumers know that they could earn a higher rate of interest with a different kind of savings account at their existing bank. In the best case, only ~10% of those notified acted on the offer. There were a variety of hypothesized reasons, and there was certainly a great deal of consumer inertia at play, but I was frankly surprised at the low take up rate. The most successful scheme used a form that a customer could sign and mail back in to make the switch. It was familiar-looking and relatively simple, but still had a low acceptance rate. I’d bet that a lot of people were suspicious of the offer; it simply looked too good to be true, and why would my bank offer to switch me into a product where I’d be earning more?

I also liked the categorization of three flavors of switching costs. Paraphrasing, they’re ignorance, inertia, and inattention. While it may be difficult to rank the relative importance of each, bankers seeking to change behavior should be clear about which obstacle they’re trying to overcome.

Using Prepaid Accounts to set aside funds shows some promise

I’ve long advocated that banks and credit unions consider taking a portion of their marketing dollars and use them to pay consumers directly to encourage better financial behavior. An experiment tested various methods to encourage consumers who held the American Express Serve prepaid card to save. There are now some early indications that incentivizing consumers by paying them $10 to try out the savings feature is an effective strategy. More details are available at a landing page for the study here; it contains a link to the full report.

As the research from the CFPB states,

The results emerging from this pilot suggest that incentivizing prepaid card customers to save, and providing an opportunity for them to do so using a savings feature that keeps funds dedicated for saving separate from those used for spending, could provide tangible financial benefits. Consumers in this pilot demonstrated a willingness to take up the savings feature, indicating interest in alternative savings vehicles, and some customers also reported actual changes in their financial behavior.

Financial Education, done right, can work

Much work at prior Boulder conferences has examined the failures of financial education / literacy programs to make a significant difference. My hypothesis has been that many of them simply weren’t very good, so they didn’t work. To simplify, it’s the difference between having a good teacher guiding a well-designed course vs. a bad one teaching crummy material. As program designers learn what makes a program good, they’ll design better offerings, and efficacy will improve. An interesting pilot on 529 enrollment used parent education via a 45 minute session, together with targeted incentives and a thoughtfully designed curriculum, showed promising results. So, too, did an experiential program called My Classroom Economy that incorporated elements of financial education into classroom settings throughout the day, regardless of the course, and without having dedicated lessons set up specifically to teach financial literacy.

Like the American Express experiment, the use of a $50 offer to seed the 529 account was critical in enticing people to take the time to open the account before they left the education session. Immediate action to overcome inertia, together with a financial incentive, was critical.

Caveats and wrap-up

Let me end with a caveat: the researchers are much more precise, measured, and nuanced than I am in their reporting of their findings. They are extremely careful to note the limitations of their research and circumspect about its broader applicability. I may be overenthusiastic in my interpretation, and have not taken the time to caveat my interpretations of their research as carefully as they would. Nevertheless, the insights that these and other researchers continue to generate have potentially-far reaching implications as banks try to improve their relationships with customers and generate win-win outcomes.

Paying with Google: An Exciting Prospect, Again

Paying with Google: An Exciting Prospect, Again

Last week in the Google I/O developer conference, Google made a number of interesting payments-related announcements. I would encourage anyone interested in this to look at the full video online, but here are some highlights and my takeaways. Google has discussed:

  • Google Payment API, which enables merchants to let their customers check out via any cards stored with Google. When the customer is ready to check out, they hit a "Pay with Google" button and are presented with the available payment options – any cards they have in their Google account they may have registered to pay for apps and services in Google Play or YouTube. Importantly, it also includes cards registered via Android Pay. Google is piloting this API over the the next few months and is partnering with the leading payment service providers, such as Braintree, Stripe, Vantiv, ACI, Adyen, First Data and Worldpay, to take it to market. This will work in-apps, via the browser, and via Google Assistant.
  • Google Shopping API to integrate into Google Home, and ability to build Purchase Actions with Google Assistant. In the example shared by the executives on stage, customers can talk via the Assistant to Panera, request an item, and pay for it via a card stored on the Google account while authenticating with their fingerprint. They also showed how the Gmail Send Money function can now be triggered via a voice command, bringing P2P payments capability to the Assistant. In the future, there are plans to onboard other P2P providers.
  • Loyalty enrollment, engagement and redemption support for in-store merchants. Participating merchants will allow customers to save their loyalty programs directly to Android Pay, get notifications of available offers via Android Pay, and redeem via Smart Tap, a service for which Google partnered with First Data and its Clover platform.

At the foundational level, Android Pay continues to make international inroads. It is already available in 10 markets, and is launching soon in Brazil, Canada, Russia, Spain, and Taiwan. Also, one of the most important features (in my view) is something that is already available today, yet perhaps didn't get enough acknowledgement in the market when launched – the push provisioning API. Issuers that integrate push provisioning API allow their cardholders to add cards into Android Pay directly from their mobile banking apps. More importantly, the user can get all the benefits of Android Pay without having to download and set up the Android Pay app itself. Certainly, that's one adoption barrier less to worry about. Bank of America, bnz, Discover, mBank, USAA, and Westpac are among the first banks that have integrated push provisioning API.

This is not the first time that Google made interesting announcements around payments – back in 2011, Google Wallet generated a lot of excitment among all of us following mobile payments. It appears that the latest API-driven approach with Android Pay as the foundation makes 'paying with Google' an exciting prospect again.

Internet of Things: Why Banking and Payments Professionals Should Care

Internet of Things: Why Banking and Payments Professionals Should Care

There is little doubt that Internet of Things (IoT) is transforming many industries, from manufacturing to insurance. Celent's Insurance practice has been at the forefront of IoT research since 2014 and has published many insightful reports. At first glance, IoT’s impact on banking is less obvious. And yet, in a new research report published this week, Payments and the Internet of Things: Opportunities and Challengeswe assert our belief that IoT also matters for banking, and especially for the payments industry.

At Celent, we have been writing about “contextual commerce” — taking shopping to customers wherever they are (e.g., ordering something directly from a social media platform rather than a merchant’s site). IoT takes contextual commerce to an entirely new level.

We believe it is helpful to think about the IoT evolution in terms of three large stages of development – see the figure below. Each of these stages represents a qualitative step up in the complexity of how transactions are conducted and what is required of payments.

Wearables and objects with user interface (e.g. a fridge with a screen or an Amazon Dash button) allow customers to place orders and pay in ways other than a plastic card or a computer screen. But the customers are still in control – they decide what they want to buy, find the goods and services that are right for them, and initiate a purchase transaction. Going forward, we expect connected devices to play an active role in orchestrating a commerce transaction — realising that the user needs something, suggesting where and how those needs can be fulfilled, preparing a transaction, and potentially executing it. Think of a car keeping a parking meter topped up until you finish your meeting. Ultimately, we will see the emergence of semi-autonomous economic agents capable of acting independently, including making and accepting payments, to optimise their own, their owners’, and their clients’ objectives. Think of a self driving car paying other cars to get out of the way if it's passenger is in a hurry.

For the payments industry, IOT poses a number of challenges, but also represents a big opportunity. For Banking more broadly, IOT can also help achieve better customer engagement and improve cross-selling as well risk and collateral management. That is, of course, unless we have a major consumer backlash against technology’s intrusion into their privacy. As always, creating genuine value for customers, rather than doing something just because technology is available, will be what differentiates successful banking IoT propositions from expensive failures.

Celent Banking research clients can download the report here. If you are not a client, but interested in the report, please drop us a line at info@celent.com.

Reflections of Nacha Payments 2017

Reflections of Nacha Payments 2017

Analysts have definite fixed points in our year. For me, one is the spring conference season, and which nearly always includes Nacha Payments, the big US payments conference. I was unable to attend last year, so I was particularly looking forward to returning this year. Indeed, there are groups of people I often only see at the event.

After being away, the first thing was that struck the exhibition floor was now much, much smaller. Not just that the stands were smaller, but there were fewer of them as well. Indeed, no banks had stands (though several had meeting “pods”). I also noticed that, at some point (or perhaps I had never noticed it), Nacha had snuck onto the Payments logo the word Faster. And the floor and conference sessions were abuzz with talk of real-time payments.

This had some interesting side effects.

First, the belle of the ball was The Clearing House, with virtually every conversation I had referencing their real-time solution directly or indirectly. Same Day ACH, by comparison, didn’t come up in a single conversation at all. Even in the few sessions I managed to attend, it was only briefly mentioned.

Second, the number of attendees (by our estimates) was up, though still down on a few years ago (my trip report blog for 2012 reported 2,500 vs. the 1800 this year). The result was a definite buzz, particularly on the exhibition floor, where most vendors reported good activity and good levels of conversation.

Third, the topic of conversation was real-time. If name checks in discussions are a valid, albeit unscientific, measure of which real-time solution will succeed, then The Clearing House is significantly ahead of Zelle, but with no other real-time solution even mentioned. Indeed, there seemed to be surprise that so many solutions were going through the Fed process. Whilst the Fed obviously is respecting confidentiality of those going through the process, the vendors themselves need to be very vocal and visible, or they could find themselves being seen as late to the party. I’m party to a number of the names, but I’ve not seen anything from those organisations at all.

Finally, and most interesting, was the sudden appearance of APIs. In Europe, because of PSD2, for the last couple of years, APIs have been something that banks have to discuss because they will become mandated. Their appearance in the US has quite probably been triggered by some of the international banks, but the types of banks discussing them was much broader. In Europe, APIs and real-time will most likely go hand-in-hand – it’ll be interesting whether that will be the case in the US too.

Next year Nacha Payments is back in San Diego. Given where the real-time adoption will be, it’s likely to be a pivotal moment in the industry. I think that sets up the event to be a must attend event. See you in San Diego!

Going to Germany? Don’t Forget Your Cash!

Going to Germany? Don’t Forget Your Cash!

We analysts travel quite a bit to different places around the world. As someone who is always interested in what's going on in the payments world, I have a keener eye on my payments experiences than probably most people. I shared some of my observations about those experience on these pages in the past.

Most of the time these days I don't have to think too much about money – my trusted Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards have been serving me well, to the point that I don't even bother exchanging currency before I get on the plane to many countries in Europe, especially Scandinavia, and increasingly, the US as well. During my last trip to Boston, I left London with just over $30 in my pocket and came back with more of less the same. Cards for meals and coffees, and Uber for taxi rides covered the basics, so the only cash I spent was on a few tips in the hotel.

I just came back from a weekend in Germany, in Wuerzburg, a lovely little town in Bavaria, about half-way between Frankfurt and Nuremberg. And I am very glad I had plenty of cash with me!

Some of it was predictable – the main purpose of my trip was a small music festival, and I expected that once inside, I would need cash for most things, including merchandise (vinyl, cds, t-shirts), snacks, and drinks. Incidentally, buying a drink there was an interesting experience in itself, as each drink included a deposit. So, for example, you would pay EUR 3.30 (in cash) and would get a bottle of beer or a glass of wine and a red plastic token. If you take your empty glassware and the token back to the bar, you get 1 Euro back! I know that in some European countries, you can take your empty bottles and cans back to the store and get some money back, so perhaps that was the reason for the somewhat complicated procedure here. Or perhaps it was a creative way to keep the venue tidy? And, by the way, these prices are not illustrative – a large glass of excellent local white wine was indeed less than 3 EUR once you got back your deposit!

What did surprise me was when I tried to buy something in a proper store in town. I asked if they took cards, and the shopkeeper assured me that yes, they took cards, "as long as they were EC." At first, I thought that perhaps he meant EMV, as in "EC = electronic chip", so I tried first my credit, then my debit cards. Only when both were rejected, I realised that he meant they only accepted "EC = electronic cash or EuroCheque", a German payment instrument that is similar to a debit card, but only works locally. This was a relatively small, "mom-and-pop" store, but I also remember having exactly the same experience on another trip to Germany in a much larger department store. That time I didn't have cash, so had to leave the store empty-handed…

I must also say, before I create any false impressions, that my international cards worked just fine in many places, including the hotel and the restaurants. However, that's a typical T&E sector, which is always the first one to accept international payment cards. I do understand the prevalence of local payment methods and the merchants' preference for those, but by limiting choice, these places do run a risk of losing customers or at least individual transactions.

So, what's my travel advice? Do you homework and understand local payment preferences, but if in doubt, take cash! By the way, that process (getting cash) itself is getting a make-over – there have been quite a few announcements recently from banks enabling customers to withdraw cash from ATMs without a card. However, these announcements also highlight the diversity of approaches being deployed. I am in the midst of writing a report on different ways to implement cardless cash withdrawals, so if you are a Celent research client, stay tuned!

Improving the Banking Customer Relationship: One Simple, Non-Technical Solution

Improving the Banking Customer Relationship: One Simple, Non-Technical Solution

We’ve seen that banks are focusing intensely on the customer experience, and very often they’re using technology to try to make that happen, whether it’s through predictive analytics, bots, or new branches. There’s another tack to take that can complement these laudable efforts: just be more human – and mean it!

I travel a lot, and so have been reading recent stories of airline customer service disasters with a mixture of horror and disgust. Yet some airlines manage to rise above this. Here’s a quick test: which airline offers this: a 2x4x2 business class seating configuration between the US and Europe? And then wouldn’t let a passenger switch to an empty seat in the same class? Is it Southwest or United?

Here’s the other one: which airline turned a plane around on the tarmac when a passenger’s husband called because their son had suffered a grievous injury? And then rebooked her to the city where he was in intensive care, for free? Southwest or United?

The answers are, of course, United and Southwest, respectively. So here’s my point: what would it take for your bank to have a reputation for customer service like Southwest’s?

Here’s one simple suggestion that has nothing to do with technology; it has to do with homes, the biggest assets of most families, and something invested with a tremendous amount of emotion. In the course of home ownership I’ve received a really nice bottle of wine from a contractor (perhaps an indication that he was overpriced, or maybe a referral inducement, or maybe that’s just the way he does business). We got flowers from our realtor. But never once has any of the banks I’ve financed or refinanced with acknowledged me with anything remotely personal. How hard would it be to send along a fruit basket, or a guide to the neighborhood, or even a decent bottle of wine? If my contractor can do it for a job worth a few tens of thousands of dollars, why can’t my bank do it for hundreds of thousands? Just a thought.

The Great Filter for Digital Challengers

The Great Filter for Digital Challengers

It seems like almost weekly I’m hearing something about a new challenger or digital-only bank brand.  The velocity of news is substantial, but despite years of hype, it seems this class of institution is still largely treading water.

It reminds me of The Fermi Paradox.

The paradox was originally posed as a question by the physicist Enrico Fermi about the apparent contradiction between the probability of life in the universe and the complete lack of evidence to support it. With so many supposed earth-like planets, why haven’t we been able to find success stories?

One of the proposed theories is the idea of a Great Filter in the evolution of life.  The theory goes that as life evolves it must overcome leaps in species advancement, one of which is a Great Filter that almost always stops its progress.

In the universe of banking there’s plenty of “new life,” specifically challenger banks looking to compete with traditional institutions (I won’t compare them to advanced species for obvious reasons). Despite major fanfare within the industry, however, these challengers have largely struggled to adapt and grow. Like life in the universe, could there be “great filter” keeping these new entrants from flourishing?  I’d say there are a few contenders.

Technology

What old technology lacks in flexibility it makes up for in stability.  It seems that for emerging providers, what’s made up for in flexibility is lost in stability. Simple, for example, has had its share of technical issues over the past couple of years. In late 2014, a systems upgrade lead to a number of glitches, including bill payment going down, online banking being inaccessible, and the safe-to-spend feature showing incorrect balances.  Some accounts were locked for more than 24 hours.  The transition process to BBVA also presented issues with integration.  Systems had to be rebuilt, and customers had issues with using debit cards, not being US citizens, and just recently, losing their accounts (Simple said it wasn’t able to transfer everyone before its relationship with The Bancorp Bank ended).

Monzo (formerly Mondo) out of the UK had multiple issues inside of a week.  It had outages with its third party card processor, and then a few days later customers reported not being able to properly view their balances or display transactions.

Traditional financial institutions have long known that trust is an asset, whether it’s trust to keep money safe or trust to keep data secure.  Technology has been built around establishing reliability.  Challenger banks and neobanks may be opening themselves up to risks associated with applying concepts of agility to the complexities of banking, and this may be a strong enough filter for reaching critical mass.

Revenue

In addition to trying to provide an amazing customer experience, almost all challenger banks share the same commitment to fee transparency.  In recent years, many traditional banks have used fee income to supplant lower than usual net interest margins.  Fees have been (often rightly) perceived as punitive and opaque.

The quest for fee relief is admirable, but ultimately emerging challengers need to make money to fuel new investments. For some that’s been an issue. The neobank Moven, after struggling to find a significant core audience in the US or overseas, decided to pivot and start selling its underlying front-end technology to traditional banks, most notably TD Bank. Customers Bancorp recently put BankMobile up for sale, citing profitability concerns stemming from limitations on debit interchange once the bank’s assets exceeded $10 billion.  BBVA also recently reported a total of $89.5 million in goodwill impairment from the acquisition of Simple Bank in 2014.

Challenger banks are fully committed to reimagining financial services, but many haven’t yet reimagined the business model. Banks that are furthest along are the likes of Knab in the Netherlands and Fidor Bank in Germany (acquired by France’s BPCE Group) which have applied subscription-based pricing for consumers.  Similar to Netflix or Pandora, the idea is that consumers will pay for value.  What’s clear, however, is that the complexities of financial services require a scale of investment that presents a bigger barrier to entry than for other platform-based offerings (i.e. movies and music).  If consumers are paying for value, then the question is whether a challenger can persuade consumers that they’re receiving enough value to validate a subscription before it begins to hurt its financial viability.

Acquisition

When confronted with barriers to organic growth, some challengers have found it easier to be acquired. When BBVA bought Simple, CEO Josh Reich said that BBVA would provide them with the resources to grow faster.  Many took this as an admission that customer growth was slower than expected. When Fidor was purchased by the French banking group BPCE, the German bank said that the sale would “…allow Fidor to continue its international expansion…” as well as “…improving our overall financial sustainability.”

The question is: do challenger banks need traditional institutions? Well, they certainly need trust, and customers, and data, and  with the pressure to grow and invest in innovation, it’s obvious that the financial incentives of joining a large organization can be attractive.

Challenger institutions have been an important part of the banking ecosystem.  Most notably, they’ve moved the ball forward on what “good” looks like throughout the industry, better assimilating modern concepts of UX and UI design into their front-ends.  At the more extreme end, however, these challengers  were heralded as the white knights that would save consumers from pernicious traditional institutions with outdated technology.  So far that hasn’t been the case.

In the explanation of Fermi’s Paradox, humanity (or a challenger bank) is left with three possibilities, depending on where the Great Filter occurs: we're rare, we’re first, or we’re in trouble. Rare is the challenger that’s made it through the Great Filter.  First is the challenger within a pack of new institutions which has grown because of conditions that have only recently become favorable.  In trouble is the challenger that hasn’t yet reached the Great Filter.  There’s plenty of life in the banking universe, but it remains to be seen who will make first contact.

Finovate Spring: A Focus on the Practical

Finovate Spring: A Focus on the Practical

Finovate Spring 2017 has just finished up in San Jose; go to the Finovate blog at http://finovate.com/blog/ for an official list of the best in show winners. My focus isn’t on individual companies, but rather the broad themes that I picked up from 59 presenters over the course of two days.

Themes

1. Practicality
There were few gee-whiz, wildly futuristic presentations. Practicality ruled: companies focused on improving processes and delivering better outcomes. Solutions weren’t necessarily sexy or mind-blowing, but potentially more useful in terms of delivering reliable if unspectacular results.

2. Employee Efficiency
What’s more practical than making employees more efficient? Very little. Presenters automated processes, improved learning, and took the drudgery and time out of many manual tasks.

3. Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning
One way to make employees more efficient, and increase that efficiency over time, is through AI technologies like Natural Language Understanding and Natural Language Generation. To improve those, apply machine learning over time.

4. APIs / AsAService
Another way to bring new ideas to market quickly is to tap into others who’ve already built the solutions. APIs are a key way of accessing many of these pre-built products, some of which were offered as a service (think Family Office As a Service, etc.)

5. Customer Experience
In line with what banks have recently been telling us, improving the Customer Experience was top of mind for many customers. Whether making an interface more aesthetically pleasing, eliminating friction, or speeding feedback, a keen focus on enriching interactions was evident throughout the event. I’d point out that the vast majority of solutions focused on the mobile experience, so much so that it almost doesn’t merit its own mention (but, since this didn’t used to be the case, it’s worth being explicit).

Observations

1. The presenting roster was down to 59 companies from 72 last year in San Jose. While more digestible, frankly, it made many observers wonder whether this was an early sign that the fintech frenzy is moderating.

2. Other technologies that didn’t make the headlines but were present include Analytics, Biometrics, and Lending / Mortgages.

3. I’m always interested in the dogs that didn't bark. Two technologies completely absent from the roster: Apple Watch and Blockchain. Others that were surprisingly underrepresented included Voice, Payments, Branch, and Financial Inclusion. As is my practice, I jotted down a few words associated with each presentation; the results are below.

If you’d like to discuss what we say at Finovate, please be in touch and we’ll arrange some time.

Innovation on Display: The 2017 Ford GT and FIS Connect 2017

Innovation on Display:  The 2017 Ford GT and FIS Connect 2017

As sharp-eyed Celent retail banking subscribers know, I'm an avid collector of good analogies.  

I like analogies because they can inject simplicity into the most complex discussions of financial technology, and make abstract concepts become more concrete and accessible to the casual fan of technology.  My favorite and I believe useful analogy for banking system engineering is that of automobile engineering, an industry that has a similarly colorful past and has been marked by fits and starts of innovation over the past 120 years.

Fast forward to 2017 and the launch of the new Ford GT, a modern-day supercar with a heritage dating back to the early 1960s, when the Ford GT40 won the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans four times in a row.  The new GT has a starting price of $450,000 before options, creating a very exclusive club of future GT owners when production began last December.  The Ford GT showcases Detroit's recent focus on platform engineering — the configuration of common unibody structures and drivetrain components to create unique products that can appeal to disparate customers. 

In the case of the Ford GT, platform engineering has been taken to a new extreme.  Powering this new supercar is a retuned version of the workhorse 3.5L six-cylinder EcoBoost engine that powers the pedestrian Ford Transit commercial van, the Explorer and Expedition SUVs, and the Flex crossover as well as several Lincoln models.  In these applications the engine tops out at 380 horsepower, which is impressive but hardly qualifies for world-class supercar status. 

In the case of the setup for the GT, the same basic EcoBoost engine has been retuned to generate 647 horsepower, enough to propel the GT from zero to 60 miles an hour in just over 3 seconds.  The fact that a single engine — albeit in modified form — can power a $20,000 van and a $450,000 supercar is testament to the power of platform engineering, the new architectural model that is widely used by Detroit today and is largely responsible for driving new innovative models for consumers, and new levels of profitability for the automakers.

The same architectural strategy is being employed by bank technology giant FIS, who held its 2017 FIS client conference two weeks ago in Orlando. 

Most industry observers have focused on FIS’s preoccupation of late with its integration of the SunGard corporate banking and capital markets products with FIS’ existing retail-oriented bank IT solutions.  While this focus is understandable, it has obscured the fact that that FIS continues to drive forward its own platform engineering strategy, an enterprise architecture strategy that will in time allow FIS to capitalize on its position as owner of a large stable of core banking platforms – from the large bank Systematics platform to the Horizon community bank platform, and all bank sizes and markets in between.

As Ford has shown with its 3.5L Ecoboost engine, FIS's long-term goal is to create build-once, deploy-everywhere core banking components that can be configured in various ways to support the need of a small community bank, boutique wealth manager, or a high-scale retail bank.  FIS’s core banking "brands" (Systematics, Horizon, IBS, Profile, etc.) won't be going away anytime soon, but what these solutions look like under the covers will change, as individual silos of code will give way to common enterprise banking system components that align to these brands through differentiated bundles of features, functionality, pricing, and service.

The glue that will connect FIS's collection of existing systems and newer enterprise components is a growing library of system APIs that are catalogued and distributed through a new enterprise API Gateway.  The API Gateway not only offers RESTful services to third-party applications (like an online banking or mobile payment services), but also supports integration between FIS's own individual systems. 

Let's say you're a Miami-based community bank that would like to serve the deposit needs of high-wealth international clients?  You can contract for FIS's flagship outsourced banking solution IBS and pull in foreign currency account functionality through an API call to FIS’s multi-currency Profile core banking system.  Retail delivery systems like branch, teller, and call center would continue to function as they currently do, so from the bank’s perspective it would appear that the old workhorse IBS suddenly developed multi-currency capabilities.

Over time, the old model of a bank licensing a discreet software stack will give way to a menu–driven model in which the bank's precise requirements are met though constructing a composite of functionality from a number of FIS solutions, presented to the bank and its clients through a single UI and providing seamless integration through the API Gateway.  This is FIS's version of Ford's platform engineering strategy, the technique that allows a simple utility van and a $450,000 supercar to be powered by the same basic engine.

By showcasing the API Gateway at the 2017 Connect client conference, FIS has signaled to the market that it has moved from the concept-phase to the implementation phase of its enterprise strategy for core banking systems.  While it will take a number of years before FIS's vision begins to manifest itself through consistent product delivery, the approach makes sense. 

In fact, it makes a LOT of sense.

Through increasingly bold acquisitions over the past 15 years, FIS has established itself as an industry leader primarily in terms of market-share.  What is welcome news is that FIS is apparently not satisfied simply with market leadership, and is seeking to assert newfound technological leadership as well.  The devil is as always in the details, execution is key, and all of the other management truisms apply here, but my instinct is that this can be big, and I wouldn’t bet against them.