Will Digital Behavior Affect Credit Scores in the Future?

Successes and failures of experiments like social credit and mobile credit scoring could change how FICO determines Americans’ financial status.

Will Digital Behavior Affect Credit Scores in the Future?

Credit scores are about to take another leap forward—or backward, depending on how you see the future.People’s digital lives leave a trail of data “exhaust” that some countries are beginning to leverage to understand and better predict their behavior.  

Assessing someone’s credit risk without traditional financial information is tricky business.Inevitably, concerns about privacy and credit-based blacklists arise. 

For as long as there is debt, there will be debate about the subjective measures that determine who can be trusted to repay it. To understand how we got here and where we’re going, we’ll need to review the history of credit scoring as we know it.

Where Did the FICO ScoreCome From?

Formal credit reporting began in the U.S. in 1841. Ledgers in New York recorded borrowers’ credit worthiness, however these reports were extremely biased. Entries included advice such as “prudence in large transactions with all Jews should be used.” A more fact-based, alphanumeric system was developed in 1857and used well into the 1900s.

Starting in the 1950s, computerized credit ratings used algorithms to automate scoring. FICO was born, and made rapid lending approvals possible.

In a world with Facebook and Google, it’s hard to think of an algorithm that has a greater effect on our day-to-day lives. It dictates the jobs we get and the places we can live. Yet, the algorithm is cryptic and occasionally biased, even if it works most of the time. FICO is far from perfect, but it’s the best system we’ve got—for now.


Alternative Scoring Methods Help Bank-less Borrowers, at a Cost


Around the world, many people don’t engage in the banking and credit card transactions that feed theFICO algorithm. This has led to explorations of other credit scoring methods. 

Fast-growing startup Tala, for example, is using the ubiquity of cell phones to bring credit scoring to unbanked borrowers. Applicants surrender their mobile data, and Tala monitors bill payment history, text messages, and behavioral data gleaned from their device to provide a unique “mobile credit score”. 

For people who need loans, giving up personal information is worth the sacrifice. Tala arose out of the need for better information in countries without established credit systems, making credit available to people who otherwise would not have access to it.

China’s Social Credit and the Big Brother Debate


In parts of China, credit is returning to a reputation-based model. Various local programs measure social credit based on behavior. Some of this is tracked online, similar toTala’s methods, but facial recognition and CCTV networks are also leveraged to ding people’s scores. Littering, failing to cede right of way to pedestrians while driving, and other actions deemed socially harmful can affect someone’s score.

While these pilot programs feel Orwellian, the Chinese system remains in a nascent stage of development. Perhaps one day soon, the West's fears of Chinese social control will be justified. And then the question is, how will the rest of the world respond?


The Future of CreditScoring


The credit score is a fundamental pillar of our modern financial system. But it’s difficult to define a universal set of attributes to determine every American’s credit risk. 


Cryptocurrency may offer a viable solution. Finance startup Bloom is already leveraging the recorded financial history available on the blockchain. Since all transactions are permanently stored in a public record, cryptocurrency provides an immutable source of truth. While there is no history on the blockchain yet, it could be a game-changer once developed.


But data and its surrender aren’t going to suddenly change a system that’s been, more or less, working since the 1950s. In fact, too much data can lead to bad models that over-index for characteristics that work well in one population but do just the opposite for another. 

As these experiments continue, they’ll likely bring a more stable, accessible credit system to countries in the wild west of credit scoring. In five to ten years, their successes and failures may very well lead to breakthroughs that influence how FICO evolves. But for now, FICO is proving it works well enough without the glut of invasive personal data.



Sandeep: Tell me a bit about the early part of your career.

Tom: I spent a decade helping to build start-ups focused on application and database software. This was where I learned how to sell and do business development. I was fortunate to be part of one company going public and another being sold to IBM.

Sandeep: What is something you learned during this time that helped you with consulting?

Tom: I began to appreciate how different customers achieved varying levels of success with the same foundational technology. This made me understand just how critical getting your team and process right can be.

Sandeep: This is something I only came to appreciate years into consulting, especially after the sale of my first consultancy to Capital One.I saw teams in different parts of the company trying to solve challenges like real-time messaging. Same corporate culture, same technology, same internal support mechanisms. Night and day outcomes.

Tom: We saw a lot of the same thing after selling our practice to EMC (sold to Dell in 2015). This is probably the thing I'm most proud of when it comes to the teams I've helped to build: the ability to perform well in a variety of contexts, sometimes in ways that inspires the client team to up their game as well.

Sandeep: Yes. It's particularly cool to see your team succeed in individual ways after an acquisition...consulting skills definitely translate into the corporate environment.

Tom: Totally. We have people who've stayed on at Dell and risen up the ranks, while others took the opportunity to become successful executives at other Fortune 100 companies....or to start their own agencies and startups.

Sandeep: We've both been around a while. My first consulting project was a Y2K thing for Cisco back in 1998. You've been around a little longer than that :). How do you think consulting has changed most during the past five years?

Tom: I think because there is so much infrastructure available now, consulting has become more delivery and outcome-oriented. A better blend of strategic and tactical. Public Cloud has also enabled velocity to increase at a pace unfathomable 5 years ago.

Sandeep: What has stayed the same?

Tom: It's still mostly about people. People who thrive on change and are focused on their personal and professional development. I love that this has not and will not change...it's what I love about consulting.

Sandeep: I know you're adjusting your work style to COVID. You're still a dude who clearly prefers to drive an hour for a socially-distanced hike or outdoor meeting over Zoom any day of the week :) But personal styles aside, what is specifically compelling about a remote agency during the era of COVID?

Tom: Kunai has been remote for years, which gives them an inherent advantage. There is something about the communication and management styles that just works in a way that other organizations are still figuring out.

Sandeep: Yeah, I think what a lot of people fail to realize is that remote work isn't just office work over Zoom. it's an entirely new paradigm. There needs to be an understanding for asynchronous efficiency...and this just takes time and effort to develop. How do you approach remote work and family? What are you learning about separating work and personal time?

Tom: No matter what the form of interaction, Focus. Be present. Quality over quantity. The best weeks are the weeks where I proactively schedule work and personal time. Neil (Kunai's Head of Delivery) shared a great quote with me "With discipline comes freedom." When I am proactively addressing the majority of my professional and personal commitments, I find I earn a little flexibility. A little freedom.

Sandeep: Tell us about a business hero of yours that I may not have heard of before.

Tom: Paul O'Neill is someone you may not know. His work in both the public and the private sector created a profound impact

Sandeep: We are both over forty years old :). How have you learned how to work smarter during the past decade or so? What do you wish you knew about consulting when you were 25 that you know now?

Tom: Consultants want to make lasting change. Lasting change is often not the act of a single person. Today I work much harder bringing others along on the journey.

Sandeep: Last question. What are you doing here? :) Why join a small consulting company this late in your career when you could have a cushy job somewhere else?

Tom: I love a good challenge personally and professionally. When I turned 40, I decided I would run a 10K every Thanksgiving weekend and try to have my finishing time be less than my age. With the exception of one year where I did not run due to a health issue, I have met the goal. I also recently completed the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race. So, I guess I'm here because I'm a glutton for punishment :) Jokes aside, our customers have a job to do and I intend to put Kunai in a position to execute flawlessly on their behalf. I love committing jointly to audacious goals for our customers and our business.

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