Collaboration by Invitation Only

I was reminded of something that has come to me many times over this 5 or 6 years’ journey in deep credit union collaboration.  I was reminded of it by my cat – Blind Willy.

We may think otherwise, but the only petting we do of our cats is by their invitation.  In our acceptance of the cat's invitation, we get success.  I find a similar reminder in all the good efforts of nearly all successful credit union collaborations.  A line of logic to buttress, if you please.

Cats.  I am bigger than my cat.  I am smarter than my cat.  I have more tools than my cat.  But I am only able to pet Willy when he decides I have earned it - he determines when/if to grant the invitation.  Attempt to do otherwise is at my peril.

CU collaboration.  I have worked with many types, sizes of CU organizations.  Each time I thought it was my superior intellect or superior size or superior deductive reasoning that brought the glory.  Today I realize, in retrospect, that it was not.  It was the generosity from those who kept showing up.  Kept inviting me or us to push, try, improve, fail. 

I suppose it takes all those skills to get "it done."  Pushing, preaching, punishing, analyzing, risking.  Today, right now, I am just reminded of one.  And I can now see the hundreds of ways all our networked community is based on the invitation given.  - PB

Data Is Not Our Limiting Thing

Nor is access to data our limiting thing.  We have had mountains of the stuff for 25 years with query tools that may have been clunky but worked.  Nor is finding the right Big Data Vendor our limiting thing.  More on that in a moment.

My limiting factor is time spent, focus, and building new and necessary skills.  

We just returned from two days in Michigan with our network partners from CU*ANSWERS.  Fully 40% of our time was spent on the question, "How to extract value from data?"  Much was discussed and learned.  But the phrase that stuck out for me was an off handed comment made from stage by Randy Karnes, CEO of CU*ANSWERS.  

"Why do we always ship our coolest jobs out to vendors?"

At rkGoBig, we call this the "vendorfication of our greatest problems."  We all confront hundreds of challenges and problems every day.  If the solution to the problem is valuable enough, soon enough we find ourselves listening to three or more for-profit vendors pitching their solution to our problem.  Depending on the size of the problem, we might spend three months evaluating those vendors.  We sign a  contract and slap ourselves on the back to say, "problem solved."

OK for check imaging.  But for data insight about our members?

The meta-problem to this cycle shows up in our search for big data.  Hang with me for a second here.  Years ago, many of us served a small community of members.  One thousand or four thousand members who all worked at the same place or company.  We could in fact "know" our members pretty well.  Not all of them.  But many.  Today, many of us serve ten or thirty thousand members across broad and diverse counties.

The point.  We can no longer know our customers in an a-cup-of-sugar-over-the-fence manner.  But we still work hard to know our members.  Just as knowing our members was a core competency for us in years gone by, it is a core competency today.  We must be exquisitely, extensively, extraordinarily good at it as a skill of ours and our organizations.  With 65,000 members spread out across our communities, data is the only tool.  So why do we all keep taking the calls of the next Big Data firm promising to solve data analytics for us?

Three months ago, rkGoBig formed our first Data Strike Force.  We spend a dedicated amount of time every week to the task of becoming data-capable on behalf of our members.  With the mindset of a person trying to learn to grow their own food or starve, we start.  We found compatriots who were a little or a lot ahead of us and borrowed everything we could.  

We did not seek to "get the answer from them."  Instead, we sought to discover what their first steps to develop data skills.  We sought out our biggest technology partner CU*ANSWERS.  They have been working on this for years and years.  Again, we were not looking for our data processor to sell us the answer.  We were looking to learn from them how to begin, to catch up.  And most importantly to build sustained value in our CU for the next 10 years.

Data analytics is one of the cool jobs.  We do not yet know bupkis about how to do it.  Not yet.  But we know there are millions and millions of dollars of member value on the other side of learning to grow our own food.  And a renewed sense of just how important it is for us to always seek new and better insights about and for our members.

The Constitution of the United States

We have a constitution to write.  Or more accurately, a constitution to brush off and drag forward.  Founding a country?  No.  A constitution for the cooperative business.  Building on all the models of cooperative banking we have inherited and moving them to the next iteration?  Yes.  And quickly. 

I have been reading about the founding fathers of the United States of late.  From biographies of General Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton to the Broadway musical "Hamilton".  It has been a bit of an obsession with the work of these men and women (Abigail, Martha, and Eliza among others).

I see some significant likeness between how our country was formed and how we are finding our way through deep collaboration.  A short listing includes:  

  1. How improbable our country and our credit union collaboration was at the start -- or seemed that way to many (and maybe you).
  2. How the framers engineered the balance between federal and state's powers -- as the basis of what the 13 colonies did together and what they did apart.  

    I am struck by what a North Star this has been in our collaboration.  We didn't know it at the time; but that is exactly what we did and do to this day.

The US government built the country by a simple agreement: any powers not specifically given to the federal government were to remain the powers of the states.  While this began to change in Washington's first and second terms, the founders accomplished much, allowing each colony to allay fears of ceding their local authority to a central government.  For rkGoBig, we used a similar approach in trying to balance the benefit of collective work and local autonomy.  We pulled things into the middle - the collective - only if we were unanimous that the function would benefit from scale and group IQ.  All other things stayed with each CU.  

For us, it has allowed us to assert the fact that each CU remains independent first and always -- to Boards, to staff, to ourselves.  Once we got going on deep cooperation, we quickly saw that collaboration could be applied to every single thing at the CU.  Our Fed/State distinction was critical to our battle with independence and scope creep.  We are able to to be clear and concise about what we do and do not do now.  We are able to generate specific outcomes over human-sized chunks of time.

We do not have to wrangle a continent into one; but I am struck how potent this guiding rule has helped keep us on path. This would be a leading paragraph if our founders were to draft such a constitution.

-"A dot Ham"


Put Some There There if You Want Some Done Done

More so than anything else our deep collaborators have done, we have consistently worked to insure that we all had skin in the game -- real at-risk money and real irreplaceable time.  In the absence of time dedicated and money at risk, there are no results.

Our work began 3 years ago.  We began by creating and then completing our Current State Matrix.  We looked at the P&L's of each CU, quickly determining that there are three big factors in the operating expenses of all credit unions -- systems, staff, and facilities.  If we sought to make a real difference in the health of our CUs, we knew we had to understand what was "on the ground."  Over a two month period of time, we charted hundreds of points of data about each CU.  Vendor contracts dates/terms, staffing levels by area, facilities owned/leased.

The most interesting aspect of our Current State Matrix efforts is that it was nearly useless.  Nearly a total waste of time.  We rarely referenced back to our current state data.  Flop.  Terrible.  Or was it?

These formative two months of work proved to be the most valuable thing we could do.  It gave us the structure and, most importantly, the shared working time essential to our future work.  We grew to know one another.  We grew to trust one another.  -PB