Fellow bankers: “ecosystem” is not a “safe word”
There was a moment, a few years ago, when bankers started talking about our ecosystem. That time was heady with the scent of possibility. The word suggested an open acceptance of connections, dependencies and a food chain where we may not all be friends but we all play a part.
Seeing clients, competitors, suppliers and regulators as part of a complex canvas is not new. Talking about the canvas instead of homing in on whatever bilateral relationship is relevant to each specific conversation, however, was new. At the time.
And it felt like it was heralding a new way of talking about business, profit and the future.
Some of that did come good.
But to a very large extent, ecosystem has become a “safe word”.
Banks use it when they are asked what they are doing or thinking about stuff they are neither doing nor thinking about.
“We are actively participating in the ecosystem” is the go-to response when little action has been taken. Regulators the world over are following suit. Hosting and attending conferences. Sponsoring events and co-working spaces. Building sandboxes and innovation centres. Holding start-up events. Doing all the stuff that is meant to inform business, result in or be the outcome of business, without the business bit.
Smoke and mirrors. Oldest trick in the book.
Only this time the trick has an insidious side effect.
The ecosystem echo chamber
With so many people lauding the “ecosystem”, there has been a proliferation of events of all shapes and kinds. Normally these events are opportunities to showcase and learn. But with so many folks participating in lieu of other activity, there is little to showcase and a lot to learn. So the events come to cater to that. Branching out further afield for the showcase part, to help the industry learn. And with so many people participating, and learning, events have multiplied to cater to the audience. And with so many events, organisations have responded doing what they always do: allocating resource to the task at hand.
So enter left the ecosystem folk.
They live out of suitcases. They attend events in cities all over the world but never see the sights. They are the eyes and ears of organisations that are mostly busy doing other things.
They are good people learning amazing things but losing their trade. Paradoxically becoming de-skilled at the coal face of full-time learning.
Tell it to a five year old
What do these guys do?
They are no longer banker-ing. They now man the bank’s ecosystem outposts in the land of cool. They are rarely there to share what the bank is doing. Rarely trusted to translate what they see into what the bank should do next.
They are there to observe. Make connections. Be seen in the fray.
It’s Saturday night at the races, and they are making sure their employers are known to have been there. Dealing with a specific flavour of corporate FOMO.
Banks appoint these guys and the market responds with more events and showcases. Too many for the doers, founders, techies and product managers, tech leads and architects to attend. Startup or banker, the people building stuff have fires to fight. They are rarely found at conferences and events. They are busy doing work and protecting the work and fighting pointless fights to secure the work some breathing space.
The events they do attend are hand-picked for the value they bring, the learning and relevant exposure they guarantee. For these guys time out of the office comes at a huge opportunity cost so they are selective.
Plus the ecosystem they play in is also mostly busy away from the conferences.
Good people learning bad habits
I get very worried these days when I hear the word “ecosystem”. Because it is often followed by words like “participation”, “activation”, “exploration” and “synergy”.
The whole point of a true ecosystem is it doesn’t need activation. We borrow the word from life sciences to describe a community of interacting organisms. A complex network of interconnected systems.
The name denotes a real, functioning set of relations of interdependence.
It’s not always harmonious but without the existing relations of interdependence, it’s not an ecosystem, it’s a collection of stuff that need to be catalysed, moulded, baked. Or activated.
Armies of very talented people are being deployed to do something that in a true ecosystem doesn’t need doing and if it needs doing then they are not in an ecosystem and we owe them the courtesy of describing the work they do with language that sounds less effortless and loving.
We send them out as scouts of business viability, we ask them to identify ideas, models and systems and guarantee that if we ingest them and transplant them into the heart of our organisations we will all be better off, none of our revenue streams will sicken and die.
We send them out as lookouts for changing trends, shifting weather and impending disaster.
We send them out with a grand mission but a mandate that stretches to ‘talk to each other’.
Some stay there, mesmerised by the affirming echo chamber. But most venture out into the unknown to find something of value.
We send them out to do something undefined, with minimal tools and almost no support. And we add insult to injury by describing their job as helping along what would happen organically anyway. And not committing to delivery or action upon their findings.
You will know these folks.
You will see them at every conference.
They will be hiding in corners pleading with corporate overlords on conference calls to channel some of the conference budget to testing some tech. Doing a thing. Rather than just participating.
You see them at the airport, tired and frustrated, knowing so much and desperate to use that knowledge for the good of a business that thought ecosystem was a safe word.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, having people to attend events that don’t also have a duty to translate to hard business delivery is only part of a wider insidious narrative of keeping things apart that can only work together.
There are people responsible for culture now. But they have no business responsibilities as a way of showing how important this is to the firm. As if the decision makers don’t know that functional heads set a tone no amount of “employee engagement activity” can change. The people who shape and coordinate the work, mould the culture. The business of doing the business cannot be separated from itself.
We all mean well. We have some learned behaviours from a bygone age, coordinating labour intensive processes by organisational fault lines and hierarchy.
But the world has changed and your ecosystem bods know it. Even the ones who fell for the echo chamber know it.
Inside your organisation and inside your market, you can know ecosystems when you see them by the twin traits of interdependence and activity.
Ecosystems don’t need activation.
That’s true of the world at large. It is also true of your own organisation. And attending conferences won’t help you, if it is all you do.
But if it’s a starting point then you may learn that to play in the right ecosystem you need to determine your target state business model: how will you make money, how will you interact and survive. That choice comes first and it won’t be made at the conference although learning will help you think it all through.
And while you are at it, you may learn that if your organisation needs management permission for folks to reach over the fence to ask for help across silos, then you may want to start the whole ecosystem activation work at home. If it needs activation it is not an ecosystem and in our siloed organisations the need could not be greater.
But you cannot achieve this by appointing a cheerleader.
You start by making everyone responsible. The cheering is optional. The doing isn’t.
Ecosystem is not a safe word.
Ecosystems are not safe places. Things eat each other, things die. But also things grow and flourish, change and develop. Ecosystems are buzzing living things for those who are part of them.
They don’t need your help to come alive. If you are of the ecosystem, you do or die.
If all you do is watch, you are just a tourist. Harmless and fundamentally irrelevant.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!