The Future of Books and Banks

Much has been written about the future of paper books and the associated likely demise of libraries, historically a primary distributor of paper books. Much has also been written about the future of paper currency and the associated likely demise of banks, historically a primary distributor of paper currency. The perceived vulnerability of both institutions is due, in part, to their perceived function as needless intermediaries and distributors of analog commodities that have declining value and/or are more easily accessed and deployed digitally.

Well, I don’t buy it.

Or at least I don’t buy the idea that banks and libraries have no future. In fact, I believe the opposite may be true, assuming they embrace playing a pretty different role in society and with that deploy a slightly different business model. Allow me to paint that potential future by first going back in time.

Over the last fifty years, America has ridden a prosperity curve like no other. The post-World War II perfect storm of manufacturing capacity, opening access to global markets and massive infrastructure investment propelled the emergence of the middle class and the creation and realization of the American Dream for millions of families. The pretty much straight-line economic boom was supported by the continuation and nominal evolution of institutions that were (are?) effectively responsible for keeping it going. In that glorious high growth environment, American institutions and citizens just had to check boxes to keep the good times rolling. There was no need to go after wholly new capacities because the demand was just happening. The collective goal was to keep the juggernaut in the middle of the road.

The academic institutions were charged with teaching students the basics so that they could:

·    Go to college

·    Graduate and get a good job

·    Get married and have kids

·    Get promoted and become a manager

·    Retire at 55 with a full pension

Institutions like federal, state and city services were/are ostensibly charged with keeping people safe while they enjoyed the benefits of pretty much showing up. Corporations joined them in that task.

Institutions like churches and synagogues were charged with keeping people on the straight and narrow, giving them the moral code so that they didn’t abuse the prosperity being handed to them.

Institutions like banks and libraries were similarly tasked with providing resources in response to unwavering need, aka being distributors. The presumption was that demand would keep growing and that the consumer and business owner would know what to do with the supply once they got access to it. Hold this thought.

There are two dynamics in here that are worth digging into. The first is the idea of ever-growing demand and how that steers the role of supporting institutions. The majority of U.S. institutions over the last fifty years have played the role of a safe keeper. Their job was to keep people from screwing it up while giving them the basic stuff they needed to implement a pretty simple playbook in a game that most people got to win. Stuff like basic knowledge, capital, pensions and health care.

The second is the presumption on the part of the consumer that checking the boxes, implementing that simple playbook, was sufficient effort to ensure a middle class or better life, for life.

Well, neither is no longer true.

The operating context of America has profoundly changed from high growth, distribution focused, play it safe game to a spotty growth, hyper-global competition and the essential need to motivate new demand and expand and enhance capacity, aka take some risk, gauntlet. With that change in context, the American Dream playbook has been rendered obsolete, to be replaced by a new fundamental truth: personal and professional evolution is now a requisite for surviving, not just thriving. Today’s American citizen and business owner must create new boxes to check and take on an explicit role as a lifelong learner, evolving his/her skills, sensibilities, and means of creating value until death do he or she part. Stepping away from the comfort zone of what they know today because what they know likely won’t be sufficient to ensure a livelihood tomorrow, and in stepping away asking themselves some hard questions like: “Am I endangered?”,“ “Am I doing my part in adding value to the value chain?” or simply, “What should I learn?” Hard questions that need to get asked at age 25, 35, 45, 55 and for many, even 65.

And today’s American institutions must also rethink their stance and take on a more intentional and explicit role as motivators of that learning and guarantors that individuals and organizations are well-equipped to compete in a brutally cut-throat world. Stepping away from the comfort zone of what they have done to date because what they have done likely won’t be sufficient to ensure their relevance or the relevance of the constituents they serve tomorrow.

This is true whether you are a company, City Hall, a university, a hospital, and yes, a bank or a library.

The punchline of all this is that our societal learning capacity and the mechanisms that enable it are simply insufficient and/or out of step with the learning pace now required in the 21st century, a pace that will only quicken. The formal learning systems, aka K-12 and college, have not kept up with the reality of today’s workforce demands and yet the cost of higher education and the almighty college diploma now exceeds the average family’s ability to pay for it. There’s a cold irony in that. And with that irony is the addled presumption that once you have your degree you don’t need to learn anymore. Simply not true.

As the formal system has not been able to keep up, the informal system has frayed and in many cases is simply non-existent. By the informal system of learning I mean the knowledge and life training that used to happen at home, in church or synagogue, in the neighborhood. Almost 25% of all children in the United States are being raised by single parents. Imagine raising two plus kids alone, working two jobs and trying to prepare your offspring for a world you’re not even prepared for?

The combination of the limits of the formal system and the decay of the informal system, coupled with the new truth that if we stop learning we lose, clearly point to a need to re-design how our society motivates and supports lifelong learning. The temptation, of course, is to dump that task solely on the formal education system because, well, that’s what it’s here for. And if not the old education guard, then the new alternatives, mostly online education distributors like Coursera or Udemy. If we make it available, and cheap, they will come and learn, right? Um, not so much. My view is that while certainly our formal system must be better resourced and revamped to produce not just students ready for today’s wacky world, but students for life, that the answer and need is much bigger than that.

We need to make lifelong learning and work/world readiness a central tenet of our society and we need many if not all of our institutions to embrace their responsibility to help make that happen. It is no longer enough for institutions to serve as safe keepers, distributors or even first responders. They must become intentional motivators and proactive enablers of lifelong learning and the personal and professional development of our citizen workforce. They must step forward as the rabble-rousers and assemblers of people who want or need to evolve their capacities in order to maintain their relevancy and ability to create value.

Their future, our future, is dependent on it.

Our non-academic institutions are perfectly situated to play this motivator role. Think about it. They are already embedded in our lives, which means we are embedded in them. They still have the reach, the respect and the wherewithal to bring people together in order to change the trajectory of our collective society. And in bringing people together they have the ability to create lifelong learning communities, and that’s the key to all this. Learning communities.

It’s my belief that people need people to learn and that discrete “classes” rarely teach us a thing. That for most of us our intrinsic motivation is insufficient to keep at it unless we have the collaborative and at times competitive context of other learners around us. This is why the completion rate of online MOOCs is south of 15%. The ability to stay motivated, to learn in a vacuum, without an explicit connection to reality or to other knowledge, is no ability at all. Life is integrated, learning must be integrated. It must be experiential and connected, and it must be supported by community, by other people.

And there’s an interesting phenomenon that supports this notion, brilliantly captured in a study by two Harvard Divinity School students. Their paper, entitled How We Gather, pretty much proves that more and more people are looking for the connection of community as an antidote to the increasing disconnection we all feel. They point out that the emergence and popularity of programs as wide-ranging as Ted Talks to CrossFit are really driven by people in search of community. So, the market wants community and the market needs learning. Let’s give them both.

The opportunity and responsibility to create learning communities sits with every non-academic institution we have. The public sector players need to crank up their capacity to be connectors and promoters of the learning mechanisms that already exist while giving their own workforce readiness efforts an honest examination and likely overhaul. Corporations need to re-think the discrete, function-specific context of their training and development approach as an integrative, collaborative and community-based proposition designed to help all employees evolve their professional and personal capacities in order to not just do better for the company but to do better for themselves. Perhaps radically, even religious institutions might want to re-think their role as motivators versus reminders and look at how they are helping people not hold on to the past but prepare for the future. And the banks and libraries? They might have the biggest opportunity of all.

Contrary to the predictions, banks still sit at the center of our lives. As of 2017, 93% of Americans had a bank account. And 100% of American businesses use banks. This central role gives banks an incredible opportunity to help millions of people be better prepared to address the challenges of today and tomorrow by serving as a connector, motivator, and enabler of economic viability. The truth is most people are not good with money, and most businesses are not well run, i.e. are not good with money and not good at making money. Distributing money to people that aren’t good with money tends to not end well. Take the much-touted idea of using blockchain to serve the 2 billion people in the world who are “unbanked”. Banks shouldn’t be heralding financial inclusion without a commitment to financial literacy. Putting credit in the hands of people that don’t understand compound interest...remember the sub-prime mortgage debacle?

Banks can help mitigate the downside and increase the upside by fundamentally teaching people how to use money to ensure they end up having money, and they can do that by creating learning communities supported by a range of helpful tools and programs that are connected to other communities, resources, and functions. In their book Fintech Revolution, authors Sofie Blakstad and Robert Allen provocatively present the idea of the “ecosystem bank”, a bank that has the ability to connect all the members of the money-making value chain in ways that create value for all. And to my mind, the best way to create value is on the back of more people learning how to create value. Teach a man to fish stuff.

Imagine a world where banks are no longer impenetrable marble towers but open source connectors, no longer passive distributors of capital but rather active enablers of capital gain, a world where banks are dynamic networks, innovation incubators, and best practice developers focused on teaching people how to create high performing businesses whether the business is a pizza joint or silicon chip maker. It’s a world where banks show an active interest in creating vehicles and interfaces that actually help consumers and businesses improve their financial pictures versus watching them fade to black or more often red. Think George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life meets a Financial Fitbit. The banking industry's embrace of learning communities does not mean walking away from the current business model but augmenting it. Instead of parlaying the loan spread and charging absurd fees for zero value add services, keep parlaying the spread but add fee-based and sometime free services that add real value, including access to application sandboxes, incentive-based savings programs, a suite of business management tools, and yes, membership in affinity-based learning communities, e.g. small service business owner meetups or retire early groups.

Banks have the position and the ability to do this, but first, they need to embrace the cold, hard truth that the only way to avoid disintermediation is to create a new kind of value. And helping people learn how to manage money to make more money is one of the best value propositions there is. With that embrace must also come a recognition that banks need to become learning communities for themselves. Their ability to provide innovative services and technologies that help people and businesses create more value is predicated on them learning how to create and deliver those innovative services and technologies. If you want to teach someone how to fish you must first learn to fish yourself. If I ran a bank today I’d go all in on teaching my leadership and management teams how to become 21st century learners, innovators and creators of the value proposition that the market needs and wants while letting go of the legacy marble tower thinking. Not easy I know, but what’s the alternative?

The other marble towers, libraries, have a shot at an even bigger value prop: personal and professional accomplishment and lifelong relevance. They are already popular convening spaces that offer a range of programs and more and more of them are providing services like career and job interview prep training. What’s missing is the explicit intention and structured programming to both maximize reach and help develop the workers of tomorrow via sustained learning communities. As banks should become active enablers of capital gain, libraries should become active enablers of intellectual and livelihood gain. They have an opportunity to serve as 21st-century schools for adults, a societal impetus for lifelong learning and a ubiquitous oasis that provides millions of Americans with the motivation and support they so need to keep pushing their own learning boundaries. By the way, did you know that there are more libraries in the United States than there are Starbucks? Ubiquitous.

They are some big players that are already pushing this idea and investing in making it happen. Google has established a partnership with the American Library Association around a program called Libraries Ready to Code, an online resource that helps libraries teach kids how to code. Corporations, civic groups and a wide range of non-profits are all showing interest in partnering with libraries to deliver developmental programming. What’s missing is the explicit intention and the understanding that libraries are here to help our citizens stay engaged, stay relevant and stay capable of being employed. Oh, and funding.

The good news is that the latest federal budget increased funding to libraries. The bad news is that it’s still not enough. For libraries to really step into this role as a societal impetus for learning and being the centerpiece adult learning community, the budget needs to be a whole lot bigger and the partnerships with companies like Google even more substantive and sustained. But really what is needed is an embrace by the public and private sector that we need libraries as we’ve never needed them before.

And banks. And companies. And City Hall. The institutions that surround us, that have supported us, have somewhere between an opportunity and a responsibility to guide us, to motivate us and to teach us via the creation of learning communities. Without that motivation we will stall, our ability to lead will wane, and our lives and livelihoods will suffer for sure. Survival of the fittest still holds, and the only way to stay fit as a nation is to keep learning as a nation, otherwise known as a community. 

If you are interested in hearing more, consider subscribing to the Blueberry, my blog on personal innovation. Thanks for reading.

chris colbert