Funny how much I hate it when outsiders criticise us

As you may have noticed, I rather like slagging off the financial services community.  (Community?)   But I hate it when someone from outside our village does it.  And I especially hate it when they do it at a public event, like a conference, and we all sit there shaking our heads at our own inadequacies like whipped and broken dogs.

A man from Google laid into us at a conference this morning.  Actually, that’s not really fair.  He didn’t say that we’re stupid and useless at innovation, just that Google are really brilliant at it.  He left us to infer our uselessness for ourselves.

It’s true that we’re not very good at innovation, and I’m sure there are some tips and tricks we can nick from Google and other fast-moving and innovative companies.  But the more I listened to this bloke, the more I actually thought that his world is so very, very different from the worlds of the life, pensions and investment company people present at the conference that really drawing any kind of comparison is almost impossible.  Here are a few of the differences that came to mind.

1.  The speaker claimed that Google, which employs 20,000 people worldwide, receives a million CVs a year, mostly from brilliant, highly-motivated people all over the world, who would chop their arms off to work there.  I don’t think this is true of Standard Life.

2.  He said the average age of people at Google is about 24 – 25.  People joining immediately after finishing their first and second degrees can do great work straight away, because they are “Internet natives” – people who have been actively exploring the possibilities of the digital world for all their lives.  I don’t think many “life company natives” join Scottish Widows in their early 20s and start doing great work immediately.

3.  Google has what Nike would probably call a “just do it” philosophy of innovation, and likes to get products out into the market in early and often imperfect beta versions, so that keen users can help to develop them and make them work properly.  I don’t really think Legal & General could do this with a protection product – the implications of launching something seriously imperfect would be extremely problematic.

4.  Considering the same point at a higher level, Google benefits hugely from living in a world where a very significant proportion of its customers are hungry for innovations, and eager to get involved and participate in the innovation process – in some cases putting in hundreds of hours of unpaid work to make new ideas work better, or to originate new ideas and bring them to the company.  Arriving for work on Monday mornings, I don’t think managers at the Pru or Friends Prov often find geeks in sleeping bags huddled outside the doors waiting for a chance to pitch their amazing new ideas.

5. Right in the middle of Google’s biggest office, there is a gigantic pipeline which discharges a torrential flow of money into the business every minute of every day of every month of every year.  This is Google’s search advertising business, which is now so big and so profitable that it may eventually use up all the money in the world.  When you can rely on a cash Niagara like that, encouraging people to think up some new apps that will never make any money counts as a minor act of corporate patronage, a bit like the Medicis in renaissance Italy.  By comparison, even the most successful life and investment companies deliver paper cupfuls of money.

6.  And finally, Google is in the sunrise digital world where none of the great ideas has been done yet, and its people are surrounded by thrillingly undiscovered frontiers on every side.  Even financial services dullards like you and me can think of loads of new things you can do with computers and phones and other online devices.  It’s a bit harder in life assurance.  My bet is that if a Google team and, say, an Aviva team swapped jobs for a while and spent a month trying to innovate in each others’ businesses, the Aviva team would come up with a very great deal more viable new stuff.

Dangerous writing pieces like this.  Sounds like I either don’t see a need for innovation in FS, or do but don’t think it’s possible.  Neither is true.  I do see a need and I do think it’s possible.   The point I want to make is one that I’ve made before in other contexts:  the thing about FS is that it’s incredibly hard – much harder than pretty much anything else in the consumer economy, including the things Google do.

And that’s why I hate it when we sit there like whipped dogs.  You try it, pal, if you think you’re hard enough, I want to say to the bloke from Google.   You’ll last about 5 minutes.

1 thought on “Funny how much I hate it when outsiders criticise us

  1. Max Planck was the man behind quantum (“how much”) physics, the basis of computer science. Measuring units named after him (like a “Planck length”) led to the establishment of the googol, whence the name Google. Planck was discouraged from studying physics by his professor at Munich Philipp von Jolly who said it had all been done. But he did.

    The two founders of Google are computer programmers. You’d think computer programmers of such Planck lengths (the length time travels in a second in a vacuum) could develop a program sophisticated enough to handle the markets.

    But as Gogol said, “Countless as the sands of the sea are human passions.” For he who can count the grains and foretell their progress rolling round the world, life will be a beach.

    The sands of the sea? Hang on! as old Planck must have said many times over.

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