Beyond the standard playbook: Q&A with Vision Super's James Milne December 2017

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It's been an eclectic career for James Milne, who can now add head of technology at Vision Super to his resume, alongside owner of independent record label and bookshop, and proprietor of Melbourne live music landmark, The Tote Hotel. James tells Industry Moves what drew him to the super industry and his new role, offers his thoughts on technology for which "the rule book is yet to be written", and shares a family ritual that helps to separate his business and private life.

What attracted you to Vision Super?

Vision Super has an amazing story – a 70+ year history as a community fund, a genuine commitment to looking after members at every stage of their lives, and a focus on offering a low cost, low carbon personal super product. My household includes a Nonna and small children so these promises resonate strongly. Nothing is more meaningful for me in making sure people are cared for in their retirement while at the same time making sure we leave the best possible world for our kids. There are not many organisations you can work for where these aren’t abstract concepts but embedded in the day-to-day decision making.

You've been quoted as saying that you are looking forward to bringing skills to this role that go beyond the “standard playbook.” Can you elaborate?

My first job was in the bowels of a restaurant washing dishes - and my career since has included many hospitality businesses. That is a very creative business where you compete by designing a compelling experience for your customers. However to win in hospitality you need to tie that creativity to execution. You need to be relentless, ruthless to ensure that you are delivering that same experience every day, day in, day out. Punters don’t give you a second chance. The application of this to superannuation is direct – We need to see things through the eyes of our members and design a compelling experience, but then we need to deliver on our promise, first time, every time.

Vision Super is aiming to attract younger members to the fund by taking their digital experience “to the next level.” In what ways will you support this ambition?

Well, I don’t think we are going to have an augmented reality portal in the near future, and we probably won’t be delivering our statements by self-flying drones – but I do think we have to study and utilise the tools that Australia’s strong Fintech sector is bringing forth.

Personally, I have a strong background in interfaces and I think affective and universal design are two areas that hold a lot of potential for us. Affective design is concerned with the emotional component of member interactions. Universal design tries to understand and remove barriers people encounter when dealing with systems. I see these two design philosophies as part of the same tradition. The thing that excites me in the superannuation context is that work we do to our interfaces to reduce friction for a Millennial entering the workforce for the first time may have a direct payoff an elderly, non-English speaking member trying to understand their pension options.

In your opinion, what is the most exciting thing in the tech space?

Personally I am really excited by Google Home, Amazon Alexa and other digital assistants. These always on, verbal interfaces represent a new way to interact with people and the rule book is yet to be written.

Around our dinner table my family have been having an ongoing argument about these devices. We don’t allow screens at our table but my daughters think nothing of calling out to Google for facts on any question that might arise during a meal. My partner and I disagree and think that it’s bad manners to talk with a device while eating. This is a fascinating issue that involves issues of privacy, intimacy and our relationship to technology. I am not at all sure that we – the parents – have a good argument for why a disembodied voice shouldn’t be invited to our family meals.

These issues are rapidly becoming relevant to our industry and extend naturally into what we do; what sort of conversations do people want to have with their devices? Do they want to discuss their financial planning options casually in places where others may hear? Are there fundamental generational issues here; will digital natives have a very different set of judgements about what is and is not appropriate?

We don’t yet know the answers to these sort of questions – but we will all be inventing them together over the next few years.

"Will digital natives have a very different set of judgements about what is and is not appropriate?"

You have an eclectic mix of business ventures, including your independent record label, a bookshop and you’ve been the proprietor of the Melbourne live music landmark, The Tote Hotel. What inspired you to work across to many different sectors?

I could wax lyrically about the underlying business principles that unify all of the sectors I have worked across – but music, food, books – why wouldn’t you want to work across all of the best things in life.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I live in a household where the front and back gardens are devoted to food production and most meals are prepared from scratch. When I get home from work there is a familiar ritual of meal preparation, consumption and clean-up that creates a very strong separation between business and private life. By the time dishes are put away so are the issues and concerns of the day. I wake up early if there is work that needs to be done.

What’s the best piece of advice that you have received?

“If someone asks you to dance, to learn a new skill or try a new taste – you always say yes, even when you really want to say no”.

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