Despite his Credit Union Warrior persona in the blogosphere, Matt Davis, director of innovation at Filene Research Institute, is actually a nice guy.
“It’s funny, people think I’m always looking for a fight,” said Davis. “When I first started the blog, there were some things I wanted to write about, so I created this pen name of the CU Warrior and at the time no one knew who he was. It turns out it wasn’t really that well-kept a secret, so I outed myself and that moniker has just stuck.”
A career in credit unions wasn’t something he planned.
“I either wanted to be a writer or mathematician,” said Davis. “I ended up majoring in business with a minor in mathematics. I heard about an opportunity in Winston-Salem at a credit union, drove down from Richmond, Va., for the interview, it went well and the rest is history.”
While he wouldn’t trade the great experience he had at Members Credit Union, Davis summed up his current role at Filene as simply a dream job.
At Filene he works with credit unions every day to build an innovation competency and grow their skills to be ready to compete in the future. He, with support from Filene and Currency Marketing President/Creative Director Tim McAlpine, launched the CU Water Cooler Symposium, which has been labeled the “unconference” for its focus on fostering collaboration and networking to get things done.
“We’ve got some most amazing people who inspire, think in a different, creative way and challenge each other every day,” said Davis. “Everyone here is genuinely curious, and as they soak up information, try to connect unrelated points. It’s exhausting yet exciting and energizing, and we all do it because we love it.”
He added that rather than a group think approach, the staff of 11 thrive on the debates and contributions drawn from their unique skill sets and viewpoints.
“To me innovation is a new idea, new process, new business that can be commercialized,” said Davis. “A lot starts with process. A wild idea is just that if you never provide any data on why that idea should be invested in. “
To Davis, an environment that creates innovation is one that encourages experimentation, provides some evidentiary support and gets tweaked or scrapped by quickly being tested in the marketplace for feedback. His best example of innovation engineering has been the Cincinnati Zoo’s response to the animals staying at the far end of their cages during the day and heading to the fences when the zoo was closed. The conclusion was that the animals must be scared of the people.
The big idea was to build walls around each exhibit with portholes so it’d be a win-win for visitors and animals alike. So they constructed a big cardboard wall with porthole cutouts, monitored it and found not only did the animal behavior not change, but consumers hated the wall and the portholes.
“So they had this great idea, found a way to prototype it and see if it’s worth investing in. Instead of a $10,000 investment in a concrete wall, they used maybe $50 worth of cardboard instead. If you have an idea or new technology you don’t have to build the whole thing out to get a reaction from the marketplace. Maybe you draw what the website would look like, put it up so members can flip to next page or you ask what do you think if we put a button over here. It’s a great way to test it rather than spending hundreds of thousands on an untested website.”
It helps strike the perfect balance between the two camps of the analytical or intuitive.
“I like the combination of the two. Coming up with an idea, test it, get support and analytics to build the business model from that,” said Davis.
“I think a lot of credit union folks feel the pressure on the business model and how credit unions are going to survive, so it’s how to get consumers,” said Davis. “If we aren’t solving the problems for the members we’re going to serve, what good are we? I’ve noticed in the past three to five years we’re more concerned about saving ourselves as an industry than the people we try to serve. I think the best way to ensure the industry’s survival is to solve problems for consumers. Instead of thinking if we can make through the next three to four years we’ll be fine, there are lots of folks who need help, have had their homes foreclosed and they’ve got problems to get through too. If we turn our back on them in the hard times why would they turn to us or need us in the future?”
He said the top three challenges facing the industry boils down to balancing risk and opportunity, how to move beyond the talk of collaboration to action, and how to attract new talent.
“There’s very few people on college campuses waiting to get the call from a credit union to start their new career,” said Davis. “That needs to change, otherwise we’re just tying our own hands. Those with the most top talent on staff are going to win. We have to find some strategy so they want to work in credit unions. Yes, credit unions need to pay to get the right talent, but there’s a lot that’s attractive about working at a credit union. It’s a matter of balancing how you tell that story and compensate them so they aren’t taking on the chin to work for a credit union.”
Davis added that rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, credit unions should focus on figuring out solutions to the conundrum that consumers say they love credit unions yet the CU market share hasn’t changed in 20 years.
He added a few commonly accepted beliefs continue to hold the industry back and it's a matter of viewing them through a new pair of lenses.
“We still look at things through the lens of this is how the credit union system is and how do we get this organization to work with that organization, instead of what’s the problem we’re trying to solve for consumers and these are perfect organizations to help. We need to team up with them,” he said.
“I think there’s a reason the credit union system has developed as it has but that doesn’t mean we have to be handcuffed because of it. As long as we hold true to the reasons why we were created, the structure we have is totally negotiable. The answer is not to run from our structure but modify it so it satisfies consumers needs.”
That credit unions help those who can’t find help elsewhere has been what got Davis hooked on credit unions and his personal challenge has been how to spread the word about them.
“When I think about credit unions I imagine an oil rig in the middle of the ocean and there’s an explosion so the choices are to stay on the rig and die or jump 100 feet down into cold water and likely die,” said Davis.
“Leaders realize that if we don’t change we die with the oil rig, so finally there’s a real motivation to make the changes needed for the next 20 years. I feel collaboration and cooperation are not just talk in cursory conversations anymore. It’s easy to badmouth credit unions as reactive but we see leaders where we need to have them connecting the dots and doing it on a larger scale. It gives me hope.”