Posted: June 25th, 2021
BANKING STRATEGIES Case Study: Product Innovation at Bank of America By Cindy Murray What ? nancial institutions can learn from inventions and innovations in other industries. owhere is innovation more essential to survival than in the banking industry. In the payments domain, for example, nonbank competitors less constrained by bank regulations and therefore more agile are changing the banking industry’s grip on the public perception of banks as the only trusted brand for holding and moving money. However, innovation is challenging for banks. Many products, like payments, are a commodity.
A vast number of products and a complex infrastructure require continual upgrades to keep apace with technology advancements and comply with evolving regulations and security requirements. This article describes how Bank of America fosters a culture of innovation. Pivotal to an innovative culture is the direct engagement of clients in the innovation process. We highlight some of the ways that Bank of America achieves this. But ? rst we’ll look at the role of innovation process in building brand loyalty. N Build Brand Equity Through Progressive Transformation Change can occur by rede? ning a problem or rede? ing a solution. According to Robert Sternberg, a leading creativity expert,1 creativity is the ability to rede? ne a problem. Innovation can be viewed as the ability to rede? ne a solution. Successful innovation is a process over time—one that typically happens in increments rather than leaps. Rarely is a single innovation a game changer. In banking, 90 percent of innovation focuses on core competencies (that is, business-as-usual innovation), seven percent on game-changing innovation MAY–JUNE 2009 within core competencies and only three percent on leaps that signi? cantly shift the client experience.
Outside of banking, an evolutionary approach to innovation is also the rule, not the exception. Continual improvements throughout a product’s life cycle build brand equity. Take the case of Nabisco’s Oreo cookie, the bestselling cookie in the United States. In 1912, Nabisco came up with the idea of two chocolate disks with cream ? lling in between. Since then it has released Double Stuff cookies with more ? lling; fudge-covered Oreos; holiday cookies, including Halloween and Christmas cookies; bite-sized Oreos for children; and reduced-fat Oreos. Oreos illustrate two important aspects of product innovation.
First, Nabisco stayed close to its customers. It understood how needs varied among consumers and changed over time. The company developed its product to meet the needs of a continually broader set of consumers. Second, the example illustrates an incremental approach to innovation that focuses on advancing core products. The iPod was at once the next step in an evolutionary process and also a creative leap. This product integrated a number of capabilities in a portable device, but it was not the ? rst MP3 player. However, the concept of iTunes was a new business model that changed the way consumers could store and listen to music.
The iPod was transformative, too, because it aligned with changing consumer behavior re? ected in trends of mobility and customization. Technology enabled a tipping point. Consumers were ready to embrace a leap. Cindy Murray is Head of Product Innovation at Bank of America. Contact her at cindy. [email protected] com. COMMERCIAL LENDING REVIEW 35 Banking Strategies way that stays close to customers’ evolving needs. For example, through ethnographic research, we discovered a common practice among consumers of rounding up when writing checks. We took the idea of rounding up and turned it on its head—rede? ing Innovation is a process over time—an evolutionary the problem by associating payments with savings. path. An incremental approach to innovation mirrors How can we foster increased saving? With Keep the the gradual way in which people change. Consumer Change, each time a customer pays using a Bank of behavior tends to change gradually. Successful innovation is customer driven. It gets as America check card, the bank rounds the payment close as possible to the customer’s current process. to the nearest dollar and transfers the extra change A deep understanding of how customers operate to the customer’s savings account. oday—and why they do what they do—gives inNow, instead of check writers rounding up, the sight into how to improve the process; how to create bank does it for them—but in a way that builds their a step forward for the customer. savings. The solution also facilitates increased use of Further, by directly engaging customers in the indebit cards, thereby supporting retailers’ efforts to novation process, they become deeply committed discourage check payments. It was also a timely soluto, and invested in, a solution, which took advantage tion’s evolutionary path. f evolving consumer beThis makes innovation a havior toward increased primary differentiator, ancard usage. Change can occur by rede? ning a other way of creating value Ethnographic research problem or rede? ning a solution. for customers by enriching has also been key to improvtheir experience and reining our electronic banking forcing loyalty over time. platform, CashPro, over Staying close to the customer is one of the most importime. For example, we designed an enhancement based tant attributes of a successful innovation process. on a typical client work ? ow for handling exceptions.
By closely watching how 15 companies were posting their receivables, we identi? ed a common practice of Get Close to the Customer placing a sticky note on invoices when they did not match payment. Staff would then fax an invoice to At Bank of America, customers play a key role at the salesperson to inquire about the discrepancy. We every stage of the product innovation process. There incorporated an electronic sticky note with email capaare a number of ways in which we directly engage bility in CashPro, so that clients could maintain their our customers throughout product development. ork-? ow process in the online environment. We use a range of formal techniques for idea generation. Formal techniques focus on gaining deepened client insight and are important when Amplify the we have limited information about an opportunity Voice of the Customer and the related customer need. Formal idea mining typically requires expertise through our internal innovation group or external specialized vendors. CashPro is a great example both of innovating in Ethnographic research is an important tool for increments to improve a product over time and of engenerating innovation ideas.
Observation provides gaging clients in an evolutionary innovation process. insight into customer behavior and needs. ReturnWith CashPro, we established a customer advisory ing to the Oreo example, the idea for a bite-sized board, which has been closely involved in the prodcookie began to germinate when Nabisco researchers uct’s development. With CashPro, the innovation watched young children grapple with dunking the process becomes part of the client experience, thereby full-sized cookie in smaller cups. increasing customer satisfaction.
For example, with Ethnographic research helps Bank of America CashPro, clients prefer self-service for upgrades. understand how to advance our core products in a They are fully vested in the change process. Engage Clients in the Evolutionary Path 36 COMMERCIAL LENDING REVIEW MAY–JUNE 2009 Banking Strategies Our strategic client program, Treasury Exchange, At the other end of the spectrum, responsibility serves to amplify our voice of the customer research. for innovation can be centralized in a shared serClients are long-term program members in senior vice center.
At Bank of America, we have dedicated treasury and/or ? nance roles within their organizastaff focused on game-changing innovations. At tions. They meet regularly—at frequencies varying the same time, our entire organization recognizes from once per quarter to yearly. The program enables the importance of ongoing process improvement participants to share insights on best practices and and enhancements. learn from each other, while helping us to better understand their challenges and needs. A detailed executive Work with Peers summary that identi? s key discussion themes helps pinpoint areas for deepening discussion and exploraTo maintain a competitive edge, banks increasingly tion. Conference calls exploring priority topics serve will look for ways to work with clients, technolas touch points between in-person meetings. ogy companies and other ? nancial institutions We also look to Treasury Exchange members to to combine strengths. For example, in May 2008, validate and ? esh out new product ideas and to Bank of America announced a partnership with provide validation at points in the product develWells Fargo called Pariter Solutions LLC.
The opment cycle. Treasury 50-50 joint venture will Exchange members have operate the commercialsubmitted innovation ized ACH platform that ideas under the auspices will be leveraged by the An incremental approach to of the program. Customer two banks. The goal is to innovation mirrors the gradual way advisory boards and spegain economies of scale in which people change. cial client programs like and better position both Treasury Exchange augbanks to develop future ment our extensive voice products with a single of the customer research. nvestment in the underlying processing engine instead of duplicative investments. It’s a platform for growth and innovation. Cultivate a Culture of Innovation It’s important to be open to ideas from all sources. That’s part of cultivating a culture of innovation. At Bank of America, all associates are invited to collaborate in the innovation process. For example, associates can submit their ideas online via IdeasZone, an internal intranet site. These ideas are funneled into the idea stream and receive equal attention within our innovation process.
Collaborate with Technology Innovators In banking, technology is an enabler of innovation. Therefore, it’s important that banks collaborate with their technology providers. Bank of America’s collaboration with Microsoft is a great example of how we work with technology companies to develop innovative applications. Cash positioning and forecasting continue to be key client challenges. We spoke with clients to determine how they perform cash positioning and forecasting. Treasurers might use a treasury workstation, an Excel spreadsheet or a combination of tools.
However, treasurers who rely on treasury workstations typically supplement their process with an Excel spreadsheet. Our research also con? rmed that many clients have dif? culty building a historical database of information for trend analysis to support forecasting. COMMERCIAL LENDING REVIEW Foster Employees There are different options for organizational structure to foster an innovative environment. At Google, it’s part of everyone’s job to innovate. There is a decentralized approach to innovation in which all employees are engaged and given incentives.
It’s built into their objectives and re? ected in their salary increases and bonuses. MAY–JUNE 2009 37 Banking Strategies Bank of America worked with Microsoft to develop CashPro Accelerate. This tool accepts information feeds across all of a client’s bank accounts and automates the cash-positioning process. It also builds a historical database that clients can use for forecasting. Keep Moving Forward “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward. ”—Thomas Edison With an inventor’s mind-set, the idea of failure is a fallacy.
Some who know best have even looked at failures as a continual path forward. Besides being the still-unrivaled record holder of 1,093 U. S. patents, Thomas Edison broadened the concept of the invention to what’s known today as “innovationinvention,” R & D and commercialization. 3 Innovative companies ? nd ways to leverage new insights to keep moving forward. The creation of 3M Post-it notes is a classic story of turning failure on its head and using creativity to rede? ne a problem. Spencer Silver was working on developing a strong adhesive but invented a weak one instead.
Silver’s colleague Arthur Fry came up with a novel application for the weak adhesive, which became the basis for Post-it notes—a new vehicle for communication—which Bank of America used in its CashPro innovation. Sometimes the leap is in how we look at things. Build a Brain Trust In a September 2008 issue of H ARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW, Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar and the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, talked about how Pixar fosters collective creativity. One of Pixar ’s core operating principles is that, “We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community. 2 It’s part of the company’s effort to eliminate boundaries between different disciplines. Earlier this year, Bank of America and MIT’s Media Laboratory announced the creation of the Center for Future Banking. Over the next ? ve years, Bank of America will contribute $3 million to $5 million annually. The center is a prototype for how business and academia can work together to invent the future of an entire industry. It will bring together researchers with radically different perspectives, including behavioral economists, social scientists, computer scientists, psychologists, designers and others.
The goal is to trigger unexpected new ideas that lead to innovation leaps in banking. Test, Learn, Evolve This inventor mentality is at the heart of our testand-learn environment, in which we deploy an initial solution design to get ? rsthand feedback from clients on its usability and value. At this stage, the intent is to address any issues or opportunities in the next iteration of the design. The process enables us to evolve our product design before we get to the pilot stage. As an iterative process, the test-andlearn environment is a microcosm of the broader innovation process focused at a certain point in the development process.
The Intelligent Cash Manager, a new end-to-end Bank of America solution, gives a live example of the test-and-learn approach. The solution concept germinated in a series of Treasury Exchange meetings, where clients identi? ed cash handling and deposit as a major pain point. It’s an ATM-like machine that counts cash, accepts it for deposit and provides safekeeping. An issue related to jamming surfaced in the test-and-learn environment, which will inform a solution redesign. MAY–JUNE 2009 Choose Winning Concepts Vetting ideas and building a business case are key steps in the innovation process.
Bank of America uses a scoring technique as part of our process for vetting ideas. Scoring criteria include whether a concept matches to plan objectives, whether it has wide applicability, its level of innovativeness and complexity and the potential magnitude of its impact. At Bank of America, for example, out of 919 ideas received this year, 10 have been submitted for funding in 2009. Building a business case is a key step. An effective business case must describe the opportunity and its alignment with strategy and also describes the target client and market within the context of the competitive landscape.
Finally, it outlines the proposed approach, the risk and the ? nancial opportunity. 38 COMMERCIAL LENDING REVIEW Banking Strategies Storyboarding is a creative technique used in the early stage of ? lmmaking. Storyboarding can help speed time-to-market. By not building the entire product—but rather using storyboards and prototypes in a test-and-learn environment—we retain ? exibility even as we move further into the product-development process. Flexibility enables us to prioritize the most important features and integrate feedback and new insights from customers.
It helps us to make smart choices with our investment dollars as products take more tangible form. The Next Leap in the Innovation Process The ability to synthesize information into insights will be an increasingly important part of creating a valuable client experience—not only banks connecting to customers—but of customers connecting to each other for insight. Incubation and the cross-fertilization of ideas are important to the creative process. Bank of America is integrating online networking into its innovation process. For example, we are connecting participants in the Treasury Exchange program to an online forum.
Our long-term vision is to link our various Treasury Exchange client groups—which are based on industry, function and geography—into a clientcentric global collaborative network. We also plan to introduce online ideation as a way to collaborate with Treasury Exchange participants on innovation. More broadly, the idea of integrating social networking into the bank’s innovation process holds tremendous promise. With our consumer base of 59 million households, social networking can be a powerful tool for engaging customers ? rsthand in product development. hen the next step integrates multiple aspects to transform the end-to-end client experience. To cite an earlier example, the iPod integrates communication speed, mobility and storage capacity. All of these come together, along with consumer readiness for change and the introduction of the iTunes business model. Within the banking realm, clients increasingly want banking solutions to integrate into their flow—whether flow constitutes, for example, a mobile consumer or the workflow related to a treasurer’s broader financial processes.
The need to integrate payments in the broader customer experience will involve mobile technology in some form and the analysis of information to provide insight. For corporate customers, banks are already delivering time-sensitive information to personal digital assistants (PDAs) and cell phones. Information analysis and synthesis could help treasurers to improve broader ? nancial processes (for example, accounts payable or receivable), help optimize working capital and minimize cost and use payment information to deepen insight into customer behavior.
We are already seeing merchants, for example, use consumer payment information to tailor coupons to a customer ’s buying preferences. Banks can deliver robust information to consumers, for example, to help them weigh product features and engage in ? nancial planning to evaluate a purchase within a desired spending budget. Perhaps, ultimately, clients will want to take their bank accounts with them, storing virtual money inside their mobile phones. Banks have an opportunity to reassert their unique role as the trusted brand in storing and moving money.
Innovation will be critical to our success. What Might Be the Next Leap in Banking? Successful innovation continuously improves aspects of the customer’s experience. Leaps occur Endnotes 1 2 3 Professor at Tufts University; research focuses on creativity. How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity, HARVARD BUS. REV. , Sept. 2008, at 71. The Edison Papers, http://edison. rutgers. edu/biogrphy. htm. MAY–JUNE 2009 COMMERCIAL LENDING REVIEW 39 Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
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