I have been working with credit unions for 17 years now, but up until the advent of the social Web, I had never felt the real power of the cooperative movement: collaboration and sharing.
But since getting interested in social media and its potential for marketing and communications about four years ago, I have met a bunch of like-minded, enthusiastic credit union advocates hanging out on line. The emergence of the credit union blogosphere has given rise to a new-found cooperative renaissance with a growing group of credit union people freely expressing their ideas and beliefs on line. This band of credit union employees, vendors, consultants, a few executives and even board members has been engaged in fantastic discussions surrounding the relevance and sustainability of the cooperative credit union movement. There has been a palpable sense that we can all change the world together.
Twitter has largely taken over as the epicenter of this highly connected online crew. It acts as a conduit to deeper discussions that continue to take place on dozens of active credit union industry blogs. The people are smart and engaged and the spirit in these environments is positive and encouraging.
However, over the past 18 months I have noticed the tone slowly changing, both on line and in the personal one-on-one conversations I have had with this motley crew. There is less hope and passion. This shift has been especially apparent within the 20- to 35-year-old credit union employees whom I have had the chance to get to know. Yes, this time frame does parallel the downward spiral of the economy, but I believe it has more to do with vision and leadership than money.
I get the sense that these emerging leaders are slowly being beaten into submission and may walk away from the credit union movement. Or if they do hang around, it will be for the paycheck and not the belief that they can change the world.
I am seeing two main categories of frustration:
1) The held-hostage-by-IT beat-down
Tim says, "Hey, how's that project you were telling me about going?"
Credit union employee says, "I've given up on it. I need IT's help, so forget it."
In 2009, marketing and technology are inseparable; however, within today's credit union org chart, marketing and technology are completely separate. This is a big problem. Credit union marketers come up with wonderful ideas that undoubtably have an online component. These ideas typically require the assistance of the IT department to execute. The IT managers balk because these ideas have perceived security risks to the credit union's network, the technology requirements don't comply with their chosen environment or there are not enough resources to execute the idea. To IT's defense, most marketers lack an in-depth understanding of the technical requirements of their big ideas and typically only bring IT in at the last second.
These turf wars have been heightened with the dawning of the social web. Marketers want access to sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to help execute their big ideas and to connect with members and potential members. IT wants nothing to do with these potential headaches. Their mission is to protect the banking system, e-mail and the internal network. This tension creates an environment filled with animosity and roadblocks.
What's the solution? Blow up the structure. Integrate IT and marketing together. Call this e-commerce if you like. Marketers need to learn more about technology and IT folks need to better understand marketing. At the core of many struggles between IT and marketing is IT's unrelenting Microsoft-and-nothing-else mentality. In an ideal world, IT should be technology agnostic and consider Windows, Mac OSX and Linux with an open mind and select the best solution for the task at hand. An allegiance to a single platform is short-sighted and is not in tune with today's interoperable world. On the other side, the dreamers in marketing should get tech smart and also understand that bad mouthing the IT gatekeepers isn't really going to get them anywhere!
2) The old-people-at-my-credit-union-don't-get-it beat-down
Tim says, "Hey, how's that project you were telling me about going?"
Credit union employee says, "Screw it. The old people in charge at my credit union will never do anything new. They're just waiting it out until retirement."
Within the credit union blogosphere there is constant talk about blogging, social networks, online account opening, mobile banking, iPhone apps, Facebook, Twitter, user-generated content, social media marketing, online personal financial management tools, alternative payments, P2P lending and on and on. Everyone is so fired up about the potential to better serve and connect with members and potential members through these new channels.
Can you imagine the frustration the young professionals at your credit union feel when they pitch ideas to their superiors only to be met with strange looks, disinterest and no support? This is essentially the message being sent, "We are not interested in trying anything new. We will never be an early adopter. What makes you think we would ever do anything like this? You just need to do the job you are paid to do and stop wasting company time daydreaming."
What's the solution? If you are in a management position at your credit union you need to embrace and support new ideas and you need to empower your dreamers to execute their ideas. You need to understand that technology is changing every industry. Apple launched iTunes five years ago and it is now the No. 1 music retailer. The record industry didn't see that coming. Google was founded only a decade ago and it now owns 75 percent of the search space and is the most powerful force on the Internet. Microsoft did not see that coming. Come to think of it, IBM probably didn't see Microsoft coming 30 years ago either!
The newspaper business is in ruins. Craig's List has killed the classifieds, and blogs and online news sources have stolen all the traditional ad revenue from the once-powerful newspapers. One by one, old business models are being dismantled. Yet, even in all of this recent upheaval, the banking industry remains relatively unchanged. It is ripe for reinvention.
Google gives each of its employees one day per week to work on new ideas. That's 20 percent of their time to think up new stuff. To "waste" company time. A policy like that would surely bring the hope and passion back. Finely tuned business cases and the status quo have their place, but you need to try something new and take some calculated risks.
There is an army of next-gen credit union leaders in your midst looking for the chance to change the world. Will you give it to them or will you continue to beat them into conformity? The choice is yours.
Tim McAlpine lives in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. He is the President and Creative Director of Currency Marketing, an integrated marketing agency specializing in helping credit unions attract the next generation of members. Tim is best known as the creator of Young & Free and CUES Next Top Credit Union Exec, and co-creator of the CU Water Cooler.