How Do Professionals in a New Industry Learn Their Craft?

> Posted by David Porteous and Gavin Krugel, Chair and CEO, the Digital Frontiers Institute (DFI)

We have each been involved in the field of payments in some way or other for fifteen years at least. One of us (David) started through the design of a new credit card program for a bank; but soon had the opportunity to experience some of the earliest mobile payment schemes then emerging in Africa from 2003 and thereafter to be more engaged in the policy and strategy issues of mobile money. The other (Gavin) started as lost card call center clerk from where his payment career developed through new product design, delivery and management to being one of the early pioneers of mobile money.

In the early days of mobile money, there was no foundational training available which would have enabled us better to understand the height and breadth of the journey on which we were embarking. Both of us learned ‘on the job’—sometimes from other people more experienced than we were, and sometimes just through having to work through the issues ourselves. Learning on the job in a new field can be fun; but it also is slower. Today, we view as self-evident a range of issues which were anything but in the early days. We certainly had little idea at the outset that payments was a field in itself, worthy of our professional focus. If anything, we first experienced payments as an outgrowth of banking, done mainly by banks, for banks, for the purpose of collecting their loans, for example.

How the field has grown since then! Technological change has swept up and down the payment value chain. The number and nature of payment providers has exploded. So has the scale of related ambition to accelerate it further. In 2015, the World Bank President Kim launched the goal of Universal Financial Access by 2020, which means every adult on the planet having what amounts to a payment account—a safe store of value to and from which digital transfers can be made.

In the midst of the accelerating growth in complexity and scale of payment sectors worldwide, we find that the biggest constraint today is not shortage of funding—money is pouring into fintech ventures from investors, and even from donors to build payment infrastructure. Nor is it lack of opportunity, as fintech startups find new space in which to compete. The biggest global constraint is human: a shortage of the capabilities and competences which undergird capacity within organizations new and old, public and private.

This shortage is especially marked considering the scale of the disruptions now underway, affecting business models, regulatory systems, and consumer rights alike. We have witnessed how innovation within payment systems has crept inwards from the outer parts—the branches, as it were—right into the core (or ‘trunk’). Change is sweeping through not only payment systems and instruments but now also through the forms of money which can flow through them, as innovators expand the use of bitcoin and blockchain technology.

In this fast changing environment, the field of digital payments needs more people than ever who can see the proverbial ‘wood for the trees’; and who can embrace ‘innovation with ethics’ because they know about and care about their field. This means understanding the needs of customers but also the business case for payment providers of all the different types in the ecosystem; policy makers in this area need to understand enough of the interests and objectives of both sides while also advancing national policy objectives around the national payments system. And then there is the technology aspect: not everyone needs to be able to code APIs or discuss advanced cryptography; but it is hard to claim to be a payment professional these days, and not understand what APIs are or how the blockchain works.

There is a growing need for a global network of payment professionals who share a common language and are able to contribute in meaningful ways to the extension of digital financial services around the world. We ‘profess’ a belief in the power of sound, relevant, and inclusive digital financial services to support a world with growth, opportunity, and poverty reduction. But that destination is still a long way off. We invite everyone with similar ‘profession’ to join on the journey.

David Porteous is Chair and Gavin Krugel the CEO of the new Digital Frontiers Institute (DFI), DFI promotes a professional learning journey for people involved in digital payments worldwide today. Enrollments are now open for the first online Certificate in Digital Money, a 12 week modular course in partnership with Fletcher School at Tufts University, which starts in February 2016.

Image credit: Accion

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