The Re-personalization of Banking?

Photo: Jacksonville Business Journal 2013
Photo: Jacksonville Business Journal 2013

Earlier this month I read about the new video-teller ATMs Bank of America is rolling out over the next few months, starting in Boston and Atlanta. The ATMs offer live video chatting with a teller located in one of the bank’s national call centers, and will be able to accommodate a number of transactions that regular ATMs are not capable of (dispensing change, splitting a check between two accounts, etc.). BofA’s press release on their new machines announces “Bank of America Adds Human Touch to New ATMs,” but I tend to side more with New York Times Bucks blogger Ann Carrns who says it’s a touch “starship Enterprise.”

It’s not a novel concept that having a human touch and building personal relationships is valuable in banking. In the Boston Business Journal’s coverage of their “Most Admired Financial Institutions,” Boston Private Bank & Trust CEO Mark Thompson explains that developing “enduring, long-term relationships” is the key to his bank’s success. Allowing a company to manage your cash and advise your financial decisions implicitly demands a great deal of trust, and it’s far easier to trust a person who knows you and understands your background and priorities, rather than an anonymous mega-corporation.

In fact, while mega-banks are hurting in today’s economic landscape, local banks (both those technically designated as ‘community banks’ and ‘regional banks’) are on an upswing. A BBJ article published last fall reports that during the year between June 30, 2011 and June 30, 2012, Bank of America closed 13 of its 277 Massachusetts locations, while “branch closures were a rarity among the state’s local and regional players; many made no changes, while others even added a branch or two.” The article points out that most of the large bank chains in the state reported market-share decreases in the year, while a number of the local banks expanded significantly.

It’s clear why the “buy local” craze would make its way to banking. Besides building a trusting relationship with your neighborhood banker, local banks invest back into the community. When you visit the websites of Middlesex Savings Bank or the rapidly growing Berkshire Bank, ‘Community’ sections are featured prominently on the homepages, detailing the banks’ local philanthropic work and community financial support. Eastern Bank has an entire microsite – CommunityRoom.net  – where customers can easily and securely donate to local nonprofits and find out about volunteer opportunities. Nothing similar appears on the front pages of national banks’ sites. And though they may participate in charity initiatives, the investment back into their customers’ neighborhood isn’t the same.

So though video chatting a live teller might make an ATM transaction more convenient, I think BofA’s new “human touch” may be missing the mark.

Lucy Muscarella is a Consultant at Greenough. Follow her on Twitter: @lucymuscarella

Robotics: The Next Frontier for Explorers

The Massachusetts robotics industry has been attracting attention recently, and deservedly so. Last month, the Boston Globe reported that the state has almost 100 robotics companies and 35 robotics research and design programs. Michael Gennert of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute – the first school in the country to offer an undergraduate degree program in robotic engineering – noted that “Massachusetts has shipped more robots than anywhere else in the world.” From Rethink Robotics’s Baxter, which can work right alongside employees on an assembly line; to Hydroid’s REMUS 6000, which was used in the reconnaissance mission of the Air France Flight-447 crash; to Boston Dynamics’s BigDog, which can carry up to 340 pounds across rough terrain (and is strangely reminiscent of that spidery machine that takes Maurice away in Beauty and the Beast), Massachusetts is creating some pretty impressive technology.

Photo: Alvin illuminates the fallen foremast of the Titanic wreck - Source: David Valenzuela's Flickr account - farm6.staticflickr.com
Photo: Alvin illuminates the fallen foremast of the Titanic wreck - Source: David Valenzuela's Flickr account - farm6.staticflickr.com

In a report released last month, the Mass Technology Leadership Council highlighted that 18 new robotics start-ups have been created in Massachusetts since 2008; and even in a down economy, 900 new MA-based robotics jobs have been created in the last four years. But besides the obvious attraction to an industry that’s growing rather than slumping, robotics may be the new frontier for those drawn to the idea of exploration. Baby boomers grew up wanting to be astronauts after watching Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon; the next generation watched the robotic submersibles in the underwater footage in Titanic (aka the Navy and WHOIs’ Alvin) and more recently, the Mars rover on its mission to explore Mars’ surface.

Robots are allowing for exploration that could never have been imagined in past decades. Robotic technologies can withstand the physical pressure of being miles underwater, to search for lost wreckages or map deep sea geography. They can go without oxygen to analyze the terrain of other planets. And while they’re not surveying the new environment on foot like explorers of the past, the engineers who design and operate these devices are the first to discover, investigate and document their uncharted territory. It’s a dream career for modern-day Lewis and Clarks.

Massachusetts has the perfect set-up for fostering the robotics industry. World class universities and engineering programs, in combination with research institutes, venture capital firms and the success of established robotics companies will keep our state a hotbed for robotic development. Add in the excitement and allure of exploring the unknown and I don’t think our fascination with robotics will wane anytime soon.

Lucy Muscarella is a Consultant at Greenough. Follow her on Twitter@lucymuscarella

The Sound from the Fury: Positively Disruptive Telecommunications Technologies

Photo: Richard Buckminster Fuller - ARCADE 2012
Photo: Richard Buckminster Fuller - ARCADE 2012

“Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time. It’s time we gave this some thought.”Where do you think the above quote comes from? Maybe it’s from yesterday’s Times story about some startup full of Millennials, printed below a picture of them sitting on a ping-pong table and running out of venture capital. Maybe it’s from the script for your new HR representative’s “5 Key Practices for Healthy and Happy Work-Life Balance” meeting.

Here’s the answer: it was said by the famous systems theorist, inventor and futurist, Richard Buckminster Fuller. He was born in 1895 and fought in World War I. He’s also the only person in history to have both a carbon allotrope and an EPCOT ride named after him.

It’s clear that ideas, stories and theories about the benefits of multipurpose space and mobile productivity have been around a long time. They have implications for many aspects of a business, including efficiency (both of time and of resources), work-life balance and company culture. What makes these storylines so popular today is that, unlike at the turn of the 20th century, we have now refined our communications technologies to the point that reliable, instantaneous and user-friendly remote communications are truly possible.

Over the past 10 years, there have been several major technological advancements on the mobile communications front. One is VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, which has made huge strides in the business space – in 2008, 80 percent of all new PBX lines installed internationally were VoIP lines. Makers of ATAs (analog telephony adapters) and VoIP desktop phones, such as Grandstream, offer connectivity solutions for businesses that go beyond setting up extensions - employees in VoIP-based offices can have their calls routed to any phone on the network, including one installed at their home office, without loosing the protection from their IT department.

Photo: Telegraph Office - Wikimedia Commons 2008
Photo: Telegraph Office - Wikimedia Commons 2008

In addition to hardware VoIP phones, a “softphone” can make staying connected even easier for those who travel often. A portmanteau of “software” and “phone,” a softphone is an application that runs on a computer, smartphone or tablet, and allows users to make calls via the internet rather than a cellular connection. Adding softphones into a VoIP PBX network could do a lot to save costs and remedy Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) problems.

Another real breakthrough in mobile communications has been the refinement of personal audio technology. No matter how strong your mobile telecommunications infrastructure is, it’s useless if the people connected can’t clearly hear each other. Fortunately, headphone manufacturers like Etymotic and VXi have made serious progress with personal audio over the past decade. Wireless, lightweight and reliable headsets are making dialing in to a call as easy at the airport as in a conference room. But possibly the most important technology is noise cancellation, which reduces the ambient noise transmitted through the phone to the call’s receiver - for an example, watch this video of a VXi BlueParrott headset being used next to an idling tractor-trailer.  Also interesting is Etymotic’s Awareness! app, which lets users program their headphones’ noise cancellation to allow certain sounds, like boarding announcements, to pass through. This lets mobile users decide what to ignore and what they’re willing to be interrupted by.

When Buckminster Fuller started thinking about how to maximize the efficiency of our home and work spaces, most Americans didn’t even own a telephone. Today, with the arrival of modern telecommunications technology, I’m predicting some serious efficiency and productivity gains.

Zach Pearson is a Consultant at Greenough. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_p_pearson

Electronic Medical Records are Worth the Growing Pains

Photo: Discovery News 2012
Photo: Discovery News 2012

The implementation of electronic medical records (EMRs) has become a hot-button topic in the medical arena. This New York Times article published in October nicely lays out both sides of the ongoing debate.

The fact that EMRs have the ever-elusive bi-partisan support, and wide industry support as well, makes them seem fail-safe; but the complicated initiative brings up a number of hurdles ranging from privacy concerns to the new maze of questions and options doctors must navigate for each patient.  Some of the biggest concerns (challenges which all digital databases face) are vulnerability to crashes and hacking.  Hospitals will have to create contingency plans for how to access records if the system fails, and systems must come equipped with major privacy and anti-hacking mechanisms. The biggest complaint from the doctors’ side is that the interfaces are not completely user-friendly and were seemingly created with little input from doctors themselves.  The databases can be awkward, often not quite fitting exactly what the doctors need.  And clicking through all of the questions and menus is often time consuming resulting in the physician spending more time interacting with the computer instead of the patient.  As one doctor put it in a Wall Street Journal article, “it seems as if this is all about taking care of the chart, as opposed to taking care of the patient. Documentation is important, but the pointing and clicking and cutting and pasting we are so focused on in demonstrating meaningful use of EMR may be getting in the way of meaningful encounters with our patients.”

There are definitely growing pains that come with implementing an EMR system, but in my view the benefits far outweigh any initial difficulties.  New equipment and protocols always take getting used to, but the value of having an individual’s entire medical history on record is immeasurable.  These digital records offer tremendous convenience when it comes to refilling a prescription, scheduling an appointment, or even emailing your doctor a quick question, rather than having to make a phone call or wait for an appointment.

A recent Huffington Post article details a prime example of how one individual used his EMR online system to get a hold of prescription information he needed while traveling abroad.  I actually have personal access to the PAMF My Health Online site he refers to in the article and can confirm how helpful it is.  Not only is it a luxury to have easy access to all of your medical information, but in the end, I believe it results in better care for patients.  If someone is taken to the ER, even a doctor who has never worked with that patient before can pull up his or her entire medical history, allowing for easier diagnosis and better treatment.  Having that wealth of information on hand for all doctors’ visits ensures that nothing is missed, and ultimately improves the quality of care.

Our home state of Massachusetts, often looked to as a pioneer in the healthcare arena, has been taking steps forward to make easy access to medical records a reality.  It recently launched its Health Information Exchange, inaugurated by Governor Deval Patrick ceremoniously sending his records from a hospital in Boston to one in Springfield.  The program began with the participation of nine healthcare providers, including Partners Healthcare, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Network Health, and now has “over 40 organizations that are in our pipeline to bring on board,” reported Laurance Stuntz, director of the Mass HIE, in a recent Healthcare IT News interview.

From my millennial perspective, it seems ludicrous not to have such important data electronically recorded somewhere.  I understand there are imperfections in the new system, but if the only source of information I have on my vaccine history is that little piece of yellow cardstock that has been following me since my early childhood – that seems incredibly inadequate.  I envision the transition to digital health records will be much like the switch to online banking.  Initially people feared having personal financial information on the web, but now couldn’t imagine not to being able to pay their bills online or check their account balance on their phone.

There is always a “breaking-in” period when a major overhaul happens, especially when it involves a system that has been in place for decades. Kinks always take a little time to work their way out of new software, but medical records, and the quality care that will come from easy-access to them, are too valuable to keep stored in file cabinets.

Lucy Muscarella is a Consultant at Greenough. Follow her on Twitter: @lucymuscarella

Optimize for Gen Y: Do or Die

Photo: Flickr - Creative Commons 2012
Photo: Flickr - Creative Commons 2012

Every time I stumble upon an article about “Millennials” or “Generation Y,” I can’t help but read it. After all, I am part of Gen Y and curiosity gets the best of me. It’s fascinating to learn (from the media) what my daily struggles are, my life ambitions and goals, my career status, my relationship with technology (and maybe even other people) and, of course, the best ways to market products to me. Okay, I’m being a bit facetious – the reality is that sometimes these articles are on the mark, but just as often I think the articles don’t represent who I am at all.

I came across a recent article, “Generation Y: Looking for jobs – and an identity,” which I felt most definitely “hit the mark.” The article breaks down Gen Y from every angle possible: Where do we live? Did we graduate college? What did we study? What type of jobs do we have? What are our habits? When will we be able to afford a house? And, while there is some opinion and speculation, almost all of the statements are backed by hard data from various surveys and research firms.

While very comprehensive and well-written (I won’t go into all the details), the article highlights an important point: Gen Y’s world revolves around mobile and social technology.To some, this may be obvious. It’s no secret that 18-29 year olds are attached to their smartphones, obsessed with social networks and would pick “digital” over “print” any day. But, if this insight is so obvious, why are so few organizations jumping at the opportunity to optimize and reinvent themselves so they can engage more closely with Gen Y?

This “Gen Y optimization” (making mobile and social systemic) must be firmly rooted internally and externally. Organizations must enable “productive socialization” internally – embracing social networks, tools and platforms (e.g. Yammer, Facebook etc.) and encourage Gen Y workers to collaborate on those platforms. The return, in terms of productivity, employee happiness and retention, will not go unnoticed by employees and, equally important, will accrue to both the bottom and top lines of the business.

Externally, organizations must also take a leap of faith, embrace innovation and take steps to optimize in ways that demonstrably appeal to Gen Y. Today, for example, almost every bank has a mobile solution, or at least a robust online banking capability; almost every airline offers mobile ticketing (does Gen Y even own printers anymore?) and even the smallest restaurants have a grip on what Yelp and Foursquare reviewers are saying about them.

In addition to Gen Y being the most “technologically connected” generation ever, it’s also the generation that’s been hit hardest by the recession. With the election just around the corner, the possibility for an economic resurgence is on the horizon and perhaps this will give Gen Y the opportunity to truly shine. Fueled by digital, social and mobile, I believe this group will shine, and businesses surely don’t want to be left in the dust when this group finally catches its wind.

Jessica Boardman is a senior consultant at Greenough. Follow her on Twitter @J_Boardman.