Telling Stories

Posted on July 22, 2006 
Filed Under Journalism

I found this while researching about digital story-telling. Great read. More here.


It’s a long story but an interesting one. In the late 1960s, I attended Columbia University for a while. Another guy and I were pretty scholarly. Columbia was up in flames. There were troubles. Anti-war stuff. And we would hide together in libraries. We became very friendly. And this guy rose to very high office in one of the big banks in New York.

And about once a year, we’d have dinner together. One time, we were talking and he asked me, “What are you doing research on?”

I said, “Knowledge and organizations.”

And he said to me, “You know, we have all the knowledge that we need. We just spent $84 million on a new PC network for the branches of the bank.
Now think about that statement: “We have all the knowledge that we need.” Just by putting in place a machine in each branch?

So I said: “You may have all the knowledge you need, and these machines may aid it, but I’ll bet that’s wrong.”

And we started discussing it and I said: “Why don’t we just try to find an answer to this? Let’s try to prove this.”

So we made a bet. This guy is another Brooklyn guy. He likes to bet. (Laughter) I said: “Let’s go to a branch and find out why the branch performs well versus other banks in the neighborhood, and see what the role of the technology in a high performing branch.”

He was responsible for branch banking, and he had a big map of New York City and the various branches were rated, “A” or “B” or “C” or “D” versus other banks. Now banks sell the same stuff. If you’re a branch bank, it’s hard to differentiate yourself from other branch banks. If you think about it, what the hell is the difference. You sell CDs, mortgages, ATM machines. There isn’t a lot of difference. (Laughter) But the branches of banks perform differently. It can be based on all sorts of reasons. So we found a branch, right in the middle of Brooklyn, that performed at the “A” level. It was a branch on a crossroads where there were three other banks, competing banks. And why would this branch be doing so well?

So we said, “Let’s visit this bank.” We both dressed down a bit and we drove to central Brooklyn. And we go in to visit this bank. This is a neighborhood that both of us knew as kids and we hadn’t been there in a long while. And the neighborhood had shifted, as happens in large cities. It had changed from working class, Jewish, Italian and Irish to two dominant groups. This neighborhood comprised now Hasidic Jews and Rastifarians. (Laughter) I don’t know why they had chosen to live together, but there they were. (Laughter)

So we go into this branch bank which is doing very well. And who’s running it? It’s Mr. Kim, a Korean. (Laughter) Only in New York. I love the city. (Laughter) So my friend, Joel, introduced himself to Mr. Kim. And of course, no one had ever seen an executive of the bank at this branch. This is no surprise. Mr. Kim almost fainted. “You mean, what?” Joel explained that this was an off-the-record visit. I mean, no one ever sees executives. You can work in a company and never see executives. It’s certainly true for most companies. You never meet anyone. So Mr. Kim was really shocked but we told him it was off-the-record and we calmed him down and we congratulated him. My friend said, “You’ve done a great job! You’re an “A” performer, you’ve won bonuses, and all this stuff. And we’re just here to see how you do so well.”

And Mr. Kim was really nervous, and wouldn’t really talk much. But after a while, he told us what he did. He realized that what his branch offered wasn’t wildly different from any other bank offered. He said, “I wanted to understand these groups’ attitudes to money and to disposable income and to work. What really mattered to them when they thought in their hearts about cash, about disposable income. They’re not rich people at all. What did they care about? Mortgages? College loans? Or what? So I learned the languages.”

He learned Creole and Yiddish. Now this is not an easy trick for a Korean, or even an easy trick for any of us. (Laughter) He learned enough and he became friendly with people, and he’d go to the Bar Mitzvahs. He’d go to whatever Rastifarians do. He’d be there. (Laughter)

He’d get to know these people. But he was very friendly and he wanted to learn what they were like as people, as a culture. And he did it. He learned it. He’d go to their homes. He found that they bought brick homes. They didn’t send their kids to college. They did this. They did that. They invested in short term securities. And of course, he tailored the bank’s offerings, that mapped the way they felt about money. And of course, you’d get a differential. He pointed to the bank across the street, a Citicorp branch, which was constantly stressing short term mortgages. Five and ten year mortgages.

“These people,” he said, “had no interest in that whatsoever. They couldn’t afford it. Didn’t they know?” He was kind of shocked. “If they would just talk to these people, they’d find that they wanted thirty year mortgages.” But you had to know the people to find this out. You could do market research, but it still wouldn’t show you. It was just meeting and talking with them. And these are hard-working working-class people, family people. Different attitudes perhaps, but fundamentally good people.

So we were really impressed. And he also did something else. He was constantly in e-mail communication with the Korean branch managers of other banks. Korean-ness was a real tie. He’d talk to the other branch managers, even though they were competing banks. There was a very strong tie between them.

So finally I had to say, “What about the PC network?” (Laughter) Joel and I had this bet. It was a full dinner at any restaurant in New York for us and our spouses. No holds barred. No limitations. I had to make him pay.

So Mr. Kim said, “Of course, we use the PC. We have to report stuff. You get information. No question about it.”

So I asked more pointedly, “Does the PC network account for, or contribute to your understanding of, how you run this branch?”

And he thought for a moment, as he was a very thoughtful guy, and he said finally, “Not at all.” (Laughter)

So Joel took my wife and me to a dinner at Lutece, and we spent as much money and drank as much wine as we could consume. (Laughter)



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