We recently celebrated the two hundredth birthday of Charles Darwin.
Darwin, the man who broke
through the prejudiced views of the religious world of the Victorian era by
being brave enough to say we were descended from apes and not created by God.
That is a debate that still rages even today, and it is clear that Darwin’s views of the
world has shaped much of the outlook we have today.
For example, in business we often cite the fact that only
the fittest survive.
Darwin never actually said that it is the survival of the
We think he said something like: “It is not the strongest of
the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most
adaptable to change.”
He didn’t say that either (this was a summary of his thesis by Leon C. Megginson, a management sociologist at Louisiana State
Darwin’s actual words, if you’re interested, were:
“Owing to this
struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause
proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species,
in its infinitely complex relationship to other organic beings and to external
nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be
inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance
of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are
periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this
principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term
Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection.”
I think I prefer Megginson’s summary.
The most adaptable to change.
That is the key.
And, in banking, this is a mantra that I have seen and heard
for many years: we are adaptable to change.
We are fast followers. We do not
need to innovate and lead. We just need
to be at the forefront of change as it occurs.
This is the way most banks behave and perhaps, based upon
Darwinism, is the key to why many banks are centuries old.
Or is that banks do not need to change because of the
barriers to entry?
The barriers to entry include high capital ratios based upon
deposit holders, regular and detailed regulatory and compliance checks, and a
market that is crowded and hard to break open.
Some would say it’s hardly worth competing in core banking,
as taking deposits means that you need to hold thousands of dollars in
safeholding for each deposit holder, and then you get an account that hardly
makes any profit anyway.
Maybe so, but there are those adapting to change like Simple
and Movenbank, Zopa and Kickstarter, SmartyPig and Funding Circle and more, all
creating new models of finance and, for some like Fidor Bank, new banks.
This still does not mean that traditional banks need to
innovate or lead, but it does challenge their adaptability to change.
As mentioned, banks believe they are fast followers of
change when required and, if there is any big change in the market they cannot
respond to, they would acquire.
If you fundamentally challenged a bank’s operation, you
would be killed or eaten in other words.
That’s the survival of the fittest view of the world.
But, in today’s world of fast cycle change – it took Zynga
only 43 days to get 100 million people playing Cityville compared to 38 years
to get 50 million to listen to radio – is the eaten or kill view sustainable?
If you have a challenger who is fast adapting to the changing
world and you are unable to fast change, can you survive?
If the challenger is adapting and doesn’t want to be acquired,
are you truly fit enough to kill the challenger?
That would mean, in banking market terms, that you would
need to offer a comparable or better offer than the challenger and be as or
more trusted than the upstart.
Offering a comparable or better service than a new entrant
would be hard, as the new entrant would be built upon a platform perfect for
the present whilst the bank would have to adapt their platform build for the
That is why banks have consistently failed to do this in the
past and is why call centres, internet and mobile are adjuncts to branch operations.
It is also becoming a much greater issue due to technology.
Banks are data businesses but, as we go through waves of
technology change, they are becoming less and less fit, and less and less adaptable
That is clearly the case today as made clear in this BBC
News report which can be summarised as banks put sticking plaster on systems in order to
keep functioning, but are building up a bigger and bigger debt based upon their
inability to change.
Equally, if banks are unable to change, then their only
other survival strategy would be based upon being more trusted than the
Well, that’s clearly not the case today either.
So banks would be unable to compete with a fast cycle change
in the market where a challenger grew in core operations. This means that the only thing that keeps traditional
banking models sustainable are the barriers to entry, namely the regulations.
Or am I missing something?