Can you remember what life was like without access to a smartphone or the internet? Even if you can, it’s likely a distant memory from our current reality. In our digital, interconnected world where transactions and interactions can transcend geographical barriers, happening instantly and wirelessly, we often may be tempted to overlook or minimize the importance of in-person interactions. That face-to-face connection, however, can facilitate trust, increase motivation and focus, and can even build stronger relationships.
Online vs in-person
This tendency to undervalue the importance of in-person interactions can arise in our personal lives, communicating through the convenience of social media or text messages, or in our work lives, where there are so many benefits surrounding digital and web-based solutions – benefits such as accessibility, scalability, and cost-effectiveness, to name a few. In fact, my colleague recently shared an article on WeChat, the Chinese “super app” which is compared to a Swiss Army Knife — a tool that can do everything for you. The application has the functionalities of WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Uber, Amazon, Instagram, Vimeo, booking systems for doctors appointments, wealth investment services, and even heat maps that show how crowded a place is in real time — all in one place.
While we can’t deny the convenience of these online resources, an in-person experience is often irreplaceable and can be tough to replicate in a digital world. Accion has done its best to combine these two ideas — valuing personal experiences as our work is always focused on the benefits to our clients, while also recognizing the benefits of working virtually. We are, after all, an organization that works globally toward a more financially inclusive future for the world’s 2 billion unbanked. Working virtually allows us to extend our efforts even further. While we often rely on webinars, video-conferencing, and virtual platforms, many of Accion’s capacity building activities for partner and technical staff include an in-person, field visit component.
The power of field visits
Some of the field visits Accion staff have organized are focused on better understanding a partner institution and their respective end-clients (like our recent visit to Banco Ademi in the Dominican Republic), and others have a more technical focus, with the objective of learning more about the partner institutions’ products and services for the betterment of financial service providers and their practitioners. For the practitioner visits, selected participants are expected to hold strategic leadership positions, work at an institution that has experience in the determined technical area, have personal experience in the subject, and are able to contribute to the knowledge sharing among the visit participants – with the ultimate goal of bringing back and applying the lessons learned to their respective institutions.
In September 2015, for example, 11 participants, from Accion and 9 different partner institutions across Latin America and Africa, visited BanCompartir in Colombia to learn about their savings strategy. While in Colombia, the group had the opportunity to engage in discussions with BanCompartir staff and with each other around topics like designing client-centric savings products that align with the local market and client culture, developing an institutional savings culture, implementing effective channels network, and more. One of the most exciting examples of the direct benefits observed from this visit was that the participants from Accion Microfinance Bank in Nigeria were so enthusiastic and impressed with one of BanCompartir’s savings products that they decided to adapt its model for their own clients in Nigeria.
Another type of field visit Accion staff recently organized was part of Accion’s International Microfinance Management and Leadership Program (MMLP) in China. This past July, MMLP participants had the opportunity to visit Hanhua Sichuan Microcredit Company – one of the largest microcredit companies in China. Participants not only visited the company’s headquarters but also were able to see three of Hanhua’s branches. Having the opportunity to hear firsthand about important topics such as institutional culture, organizational structure, and being able to observe the day-to-day operations of branch managers and loan officers in person led the participants to describe it as one of the most insightful activities of the program.
Strong partners, strong partnerships
Having the direct, in-person access to host institutions is not only a reflection of the strength of Accion’s partners and partnerships but a critical piece of the learning process. The success of these visits is contingent on the institutions’ willingness to host, as well as their openness to fostering knowledge sharing and professional learning exchanges. It’s because of these capacity building trips that Accion has been able to capture lessons learned from financial service providers on a variety of technical topics to share with the greater industry. And, just as the success of an in-person visit is contingent on host institutions, the success of sharing those lessons with the widest possible audience is dependent on the effective use of and access to digital channels.
Accion understands the value of both the in-person and virtual connection, and with Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and online publications (including those developed by our colleagues at the Center for Financial Inclusion), we are constantly striving to share the information we’ve captured, and inform the financial inclusion industry on important lessons relevant to our work. We’ve previously published Lessons Learned Briefs on topics such as Achieving Growth through a Strong Organizational Culture and Effective Incentive System Design, and will continue our efforts to capture the value from in-person interactions through our digital channels. Stay tuned for our next available resources on the topics of maximizing human capital and savings in the coming months!