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Stepping outside the super bubble

Many industries have looked beyond themselves to innovate and better engage with customers. It’s time for the superannuation industry to take it to the next level.

Technology giant Cisco convenes a meeting with Airbus, DHL and Caterpillar at a beer factory in Berlin to discuss new ways of doing business. Computer chip maker Intel announces a partnership with BMW and autonomous driving company Mobileye to develop self-driving cars. Adidas teams up with Parley for the Oceans, a group bringing awareness about ocean pollution, to create a sneaker made from recycled ocean waste.

The common thread between these disparate groupings? A shared quest to find new markets, bring greater value and create experiences that delight customers and spark brand loyalty.

Getting the inspiration to break new ground rarely comes from doing the same thing in the same way. In my experience as a visual artist outside my day job in superannuation, I know that much of the creative process comes from being exposed to new things, and this is the same for any industry that seeks to innovate — find new perspectives, understand emerging technologies, and meet people outside your professional and social circles.

Super’s primary responsibility is to protect and grow members’ retirement savings. This means that the industry has tended to err on the safe side when it comes to innovation. We also use legacy systems and processes that are built to administer it, which can get in the way of delivering an egaging experience for the customer.

But members deserve must more. As an industry, we should embrace the potential for further-flung ideas to better serve our members’ financial needs — and this can occur by looking to other industries for learning and cross-pollination opportunities.

My colleague, Metter Schepers, Partner and Client Growth Leader at Mercer, agrees. She says that stepping outside of your world is incredible for networking and seeing issues from a different perspective.

At a minimum, it helps all professionals develop ‘learning agility’, which includes diversity of thought and an open mind. At its best, it could create a cross-pollination of ideas, new ways of working and networks that allow professionals to build new businesses and services.

Cross-pollination is the new normal

In the past, there were larger divisions between the creative, technology and business worlds. Today, these areas are substantially intertwined.

Let’s consider Pause Fest, a conference that originated in Melbourne. Pause brings together companies and luminaries from the creative, tech and business sectors for three days of keynote speakers, panels, workshops, experiences and networking with a focus on empowering creators of all kinds. The line-up for Pause 2017 included representatives from organisations such as Pixar, Dropbox, NASA and Xero; start-up founders across an array of industries; as well as creative business minds, including the interactive director for music and tech event SXSW.

The imagineer behind Pause, George Hedon, told me he founded the conference to create a melting pot of different industries that wouldn’t normally find themselves in the same place.

A great element of conferences isn’t just the program, but the connections and conversations that take place on the side. Pause creates an environment where perspectives are broadened and different ideas are encouraged to collide to inspire others.

Collaboration as a catalyst for change

It is great to see evidence of cross-pollination with other industries emerging across the super sector.

For instance, a number of super funds have significantly improved their online presence. Taking guidance and inspiration from retail and consumer-focused brands, funds have revamped their websites to prioritise customer experience and engagement.

Others have brought in market-leading user experience (UX) designers to overhaul customer service functions and ensure each interaction is as frictionless as possible — such as the process of signing up to a fund. And, we are only just scratching the surface of mining the wealth of data we collect to drive better member insights and, ultimately, better member outcomes.

We are also seeing more super funds adopt design thinking in their operations — a process that is fast becoming the norm due to its ability to effectively solve complex business challenges. This approach encourages teams to define problems, put strategies into the field, fail fast and constantly improve to develop optimal, human-centred solutions. In practice, this draws heavily on processes such as design sprints and agile project management, methodologies that originated from the software development sector.

In my role as Chair for the Association of Superannuation Funds Australia’s Emerging Leaders program for Victoria, our committee has engaged speakers from other industries to bring new ideas to the ASFA Emerging Leaders community. We’ve had Leon Gouletsas (practice leader for IBM Bluemix Garage), Fiona Triaca (co-founder of Naked Ambition, a boutique consulting firm for experience design, design thinking, personal branding and storytellers), Dr Ross Honeywill (social scientist, who developed the model of the ‘desire economy’) and Harry Chemay (CEO of robo-adviser Clover). This is something we want to continue to pursue, perhaps doing our part to bring a ‘Pause-like’ vibe to super.

Collaborating to bring greater value to members

There’s also a place for collaboration in building our members’ retirement savings. I believe we can more meaningfully engage people, particularly young members, with their super by allowing them to invest in areas that align with their values. This is the principle of impact investing, where investment strategies are designed to create positive social and environmental impact in addition to a financial return.

Given this, there may be a place for funds to collaborate with governments, institutional investors and social enterprises to build a pipeline of impact-driven projects that underpin investment options. By working together, we can deliver products that better engage members with their super and allow for greater diversification across geographies and sectors.

Impact investing is just one example of where we can offer more value to members.

In terms of selecting a super fund, fund returns and fees are very important. But aside from fair fees and good returns, we should look at developing other areas of differentiation that allow funds to build life-long relationships to help people retire well.

Some areas where we could find opportunities include member engagement, post-retirement product development, service delivery, and the provision of scalable digital advice — just to name a few.

Competitive advantage is important in any industry and superannuation is no different. By seeking inspiration from other fields, funds can create a point of difference beyond the usual fee and return comparisons; developing sustainable advantage through customer value and engagement.

Georgina Lee is the chair of ASFA Emerging Leaders Victoria and a Principal at Mercer.

This article originally appeared in Superfunds Magazine, April 2017.