BarCampBankBC2: The crystal ball diaries

Today, William Azaroff hosted BarCampBankBC2 at the Vancity head office. The picture above is the inspired view from the boardroom! William has beat me to the punch with a nice recap of BCBBC2, so rather than just a repeat, I am going to give my thoughts on how this event compared to Seattle in 2007 and BC in 2008. I have enjoyed all three and although they could not have been more different, they do share a common theme—interested parties speculating on what the future might bring.

Seattle, July 2007

Being the first in North America, BarCampBankSeattle was shiny and new and full of discovery and optimism. I remember arriving in Seattle early in the morning not knowing at all what to expect. I was there first and found the tiny address numbers on a very nondescript door. I waited for someone to come. This black Suburban pulls up and this young man jumps out swearing a blue streak about the "guy with the chairs and food" falling through. By this time a couple others had arrived and we all helped him lug about 75 folding chairs through dark hallways and up a small elevator into a really cool space. It was an old building that had been converted into open-plan offices. It had creaky hardwood floors and you could tell that during the week the space was inhabited by a tech start-up.

Turns out the young man in the Suburban was Jesse Robbins, the event organizer. About 60 people were there from all over North America and it was the first time that many credit union bloggers met in person. There was a mix of credit union employees, bankers, analysts, technologists and consultants. The discussions were varied and deep and everyone participated. Online friendships were crystalized in real life and the discussions continued well into the evening throughout a dinner that about 20 people attended. There was a subset of people using Twitter at the event and I remember a discussion around what the heck is Twitter and why would anybody use it?

It had a Woodstock vibe and the pervasive crystal-ball theme was how would social technologies affect the financial services industry? There were a number of entrepreneurial people in the room in the midst of innovating and a lot of speculation on how online personal financial managers, peer-to-peer lending and social media would potentially disrupt the financial services industry. I would rate the experience a 10 out of 10. It was exceptional.

Vancouver, September 2008

Gene, William and I organized the first BarCampBank in Canada. The facility was fantastic—it was held at the downtown campus of BCIT, a technical university. About 70 people attended from 10 different provinces and states. Again, it was a melting pot of people. The discussions were more rooted in the realities of the time. We were in the front-end of the financial crisis and everyone was speculating on what would come. There was great discussions about the differences and similarities between the financial marketplace on either side of the Canada-US border and also the differences between banks and credit unions. Social media and technology were still themes, but the discussions had shifted to the real applications versus blue-ocean thinking. The vibe was less entrepreneurial and more practical.

Again the discussions were in depth, well argued and continued well into the evening as about 30 people continued on to dinner. I would rate the experience 8 out of 10. It was great.

Vancouver, September 2009

Gene, William and I envisioned BarCampBankBC2 as a more low key and local event given the economy and the realities of slashed travel and education budgets. We were able to keep the fee to just $10 because of the generosity of Vancity. We had access to the top floor of Vancity's head office. We ended up using the boardroom and a smaller foyer for each concurrent session. There were about 25 in attendance—mostly from the credit union world including credit union executives, technologists and a board member and also a number of vendors that work with credit unions. We had representation from four BC credit unions including Vancity, Westminster Savings, Community Savings and North Shore Credit Union. There were also two people attending from Servus Credit Union in Alberta. Folks from Central 1 and Credit Union Central of Alberta were also there.

I liked that the discussions were rooted in the local realities of one of the most robust credit union marketplaces in the world. BC and Alberta are home to the four largest credit unions in Canada. This also made the discussions quite insular compared to my two previous BarCampBank experiences. Four people from Washington and Oregon had planned to attend, but were unable to make it. There were also at least two representatives from major banks that were unable to make it as well. This was disappointing, because I feel that perspectives from different realities and regions add so much to the discussion.

There were good debates about the future of products, branching and digital marketing. I felt the discussion on digital marketing was particularly good because it included e-mail marketing, social media and search engine optimization all in one discussion rather than the typical segmentation that happens. There is a growing realization that social media is just another vehicle that can enable credit unions to listen and to tell their unique stories. Ed Brett hit the nail on the head when he said (something to this effect), "Until we can say that creating compelling content is one of our core competencies, we are staying away from having a presence on Twitter and Facebook?"

Another good discussion centered around channel strategy. What different roles should our branches and websites play? I was impressed with the depth of William's thinking on this subject. He has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how the web channel is different than the branch channel and how it should not be treated simply as another branch.

Because all of the credit unions represented at BCBBC2 (and half of the credit unions in Canada for that matter) share the same online website and banking system—Central 1 Credit Union's MemberDirect—the meeting felt more like a user group meeting than a freeform open sharing of big ideas typically associated with an unconference. There were three product folks from Central 1 there—Chloe Morrow, Margarita Lurye and Rene Gourley—who added to the conversation and kept it grounded in reality. This was good and bad. Good that the clients (the credit unions) could ask the vendor (Central 1), "can you guys do that?" And bad that it seemed to cap the big idea generation that I have experienced at previous events.

The vibe was good and everyone enjoyed themselves. It was definitely more low key and local and I was disappointed that it didn't naturally extend into a great dinner with continued discussion. I would rate it 7 out of 10. It was good.

Final thought

During the future of cooperation session, William asked the question, "What if membership to credit unions was optional?" I love this idea. It could really give meat and meaning to the advantages of membership.

The irony of this question hit me on the drive home. The BC credit union system is renowned throughout the world for its cooperation in technology and province-wide marketing. It occurred to me that inter-credit-union cooperation in Canada is mandated unlike the entrepreneurial CUSO environment that has organically sprung up in the US. "What if membership to credit union centrals was optional?" Now that would have made for a great discussion!

Tim

P.S. Had Gene Blishen been able to make it, with his Yoda-like comments and wisdom, BCBBC2 would have been exceptional!