Filene's Brent Dixon: Up With Collaboration, Down With Myopia
Rather than trying to fight the competition or outperform them, I believe that when you are as local, specialized and so specific in what you do and offer, you don’t have competition because no one does what you do," said Brent Dixon, young adult adviser at Filene Research Institute.
It was that thinking that has helped Dixon carve his own career path to help the credit union industry to reimagine its future.
"Like most people I got involved with credit unions by accident," said Dixon. "I worked for a Web design company with a friend and was looking around for a niche, so I tried a bunch of things, music, churches, nonprofits and then happened upon a credit union opportunity and found that credit unions were a good fit philosophically."
At that time, Dixon said there wasn’t a Web design shop that was focused on social driven media that also had artful design.
"There were some groups that were way better at IT or database stuff, so for some credit unions we just weren’t a good fit," said Dixon. "It made more sense for us just to be so specific that there is no competition."
In a way the same can be said for credit unions, where general awareness continues to be a challenge.
"One of the biggest strengths of the credit union industry is its capacity to work together and collaborate and yet there can be a lot of short-term myopia regarding everything from regulatory issues, the economy–where consumers simply have less to bank with–to an aging membership. And none of it is slowing down," said Dixon. "The business model in credit unions hasn’t changed a lot since the creation of credit unions, yet consumer needs and desires and the general economy has changed quite a bit, so it’s time to take advantage of that collaborative strength to rethink elements of that business model."
He added that he’d also like to see that collaboration extend beyond the walls of the credit union industry.
"You know you see this divisive line of credit unions and everyone else, yet there are so many like-minded groups within the cooperative movement and even among community banks," said Dixon. "In Canada, credit unions are considered a strong subset of cooperatives, yet here credit unions seem a bit removed from that connective tissue of co-ops. And that needs to change."
According to Dixon, the general perception of credit union competition seems to focus on big banks like Wells Fargo or Bank of America, local community banks, even other credit unions, but online banks aren’t even on the radar.
"In a Filene study conducted by Rob Rubin, 86% of young consumers said they wouldn’t switch from an online bank because of the customer service," said Dixon. "Which is ironic because it’s totally self-serve, so even looking at credit unions that are hanging their hat on service as a distinguisher, even that definition is changing."
Inspired by the South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals in Austin, Texas, which were designed to foster creative and personal growth through original music, independent films and emerging technologies, Dixon came up with Crash the GAC.
"My friends would tell me about all the ancillary events they’d attend and how it was such a great experience. So why couldn’t there be something similar for young credit union professionals at CUNA’s Governmental Affairs Conference?" said Dixon.
That single question has sparked the Crash Network, which now consists of over 150 under-30-year-old credit union professionals who "work hard to be an incubator that pushes the industry, and its young talent within, into the future through meet-ups, development projects, online collaboration and mentorships."
"We certainly weren’t trying to start an organization, we thought why not just huddle at a bar and ask a few industry leaders who would be at the GAC to come talk to us. And now to see where it’s gone it has been a really great ride," said Dixon.
As for the future of the network, the Crashers have set their sights on helping credit unions increase the availability of affordable home ownership in North America with the Collider Tournament. From the pitch to the concept document to the prototype, the three-part tournament will result in one winning Crasher or group. The winning idea, and the brain trust behind it, will not only be presented at Filene’s Big Bright Minds Conference but will also be assigned a dedicated implementation team to bring the idea to life.
"I think it’s a really important transition to not just being inspired but tapping into the inspiration of the industry and create integration into getting stuff done," said Dixon. "Credit unions have a big responsibility. America is financially broken and busted–who better than the not-for-profit arm of the financial industry to fix it?
"We can talk all day about the future, rethinking the business model, but unless we make a change inside culturally it means nothing. One of our major goals is to get things done, create new opportunities for innovation, recognizing that there’s a lot we don’t know so we have to hook up with those who have the expertise to guide the way. And together help shape what’s next."
Dixon said the industry response has been so welcoming, and it has been an incredible experience to see the more seasoned levels of wisdom working together with the young professionals who are hungry and passionate about the industry. He also has a wish for credit unions:
"Sometimes it seems like you have to have a political organizational chart checklist before you can kick an idea off and it can be frustrating," said Dixon.
"I think there is more we can do in terms of larger scale cooperatives and collaboration. Credit unions could stand to be more open to creativity. Why not foster a culture where innovation is nurtured and ideas are implemented even if they fail," he said. "There’s a big fear of failure with new ideas but we should build our tolerance because even if the exact idea wasn’t successful, chances are it improved other functions and provided the foundation for future initiatives."
Trailblazers 40 Below is a recognition program to highlight the achievements of young executives in the industry. It also offers up-and-comers eMentoring by a host of veterans and relevant news and opinions to help them continue changing the face of credit unions. Check it out at CUTimes.com/T40B
Dixon's Reading List:
- New Capitalist Manifesto Umair Haque
- Letter to a Young Poet Ranier Maria Rilke
- The Creative Habit Twyla Tharp
Dixon's Must Read Daily Blogs: