‘No Such Thing’ as an Easy Core Conversion

If you let things slide, you risk ‘having a wave come over your head.’

January 3, 2011

What’s the recipe for a successful core processing conversion? Assemble the right team, minimize disruptions, build a comprehensive plan, stay on plan, and resist the temptation to delay or defer activities or decisions.

So say Symitar President Ted Bilke and Charlotte Casagrand, director of implementations. The core processing veterans share with Credit Union Magazine their knowledge about ensuring a smooth core conversion.

CU Mag: What are the best ways to keep this process running smoothly?

Casagrand: I have several recommendations:

  • Appoint a project manager from the credit union side;
  • Be very organized. Know what you want to do and changes you want to make, and have executive signoff on this before starting the conversion; and
  • Keep in mind, first and foremost, that a conversion is a big process—it takes a lot of input and effort from the credit union side.
Information Systems Guide
Credit Union Magazine's 2011 Information Systems Guide highlights the credit union movement's top core processors and their systems' features and functions.

So don’t take on too many other projects during the conversion. It takes a toll on credit union staff.

Bilke: We’ve seen it all—credit unions that do core conversions and mergers at the same time. We can bring a lot of resources, but the key credit union staff have limitations.

Credit unions need to accept that core conversions are hard—there’s no such thing as an easy conversion. You have to assemble the right team, minimize disruptions, build a comprehensive plan, stay on plan, and resist the temptation to delay or defer activities or decisions.

Typically, what isn’t negotiable is that conversion date. If you let things slide, you risk having a wave come over your head.

Casagrand: It’s a domino effect: If you miss one or two key events, you’ll have a heck of a time catching up. Don’t miss milestones.

CU Mag: What happens if a CU misses a milestone?

Bilke: We look at stoplight charts that tell us whether the credit union or our employees are meeting or missing their deadlines. This allows us to react quickly and either apply more resources from the vendor side or make sure we have the right focus from the credit union side.

This is invaluable. Those stoplight reports go all the way up to myself, as president, as well as to the credit union’s senior executive team.

Casagrand: As a sideline to those reports, I have all managers give me weekly reports on conversion status. That gives me a bird’s eye view of anything that might be slipping on our side or the credit union side, and we can address it immediately. We have a lot of checks and balances in place.

Bilke: Our conversions culminate in an integrated test week, typically about a month before the conversion date. It’s a direct rehearsal for the conversion itself. At that point we’re tweaking and refining, vs. what the industry has done historically—throwing a big Hail Mary pass those last couple of weeks.

Next: What causes delays?

CU Mag: Why do delays occur?

Casagrand: Sometimes with smaller credit unions it’s a lack of resources. But the biggest reason for delays is when the project manager fills a key role at both the credit union and the conversion process—everything has to flow through him or her.

That’s a big stumbling block because it creates a bottleneck.

Bilke: You set up the conversion as a series of tasks and events. If you start deferring those either because you’re not ready to make decisions or your key decision maker isn’t available, then everything starts sliding toward that immovable date. That’s when credit unions get in trouble.

During the five years I’ve been at Symitar, we’ve done about 130 conversions and only one credit union has asked to push back its conversion date. It’s rare.

CU Mag: How can CUs maintain staff’s motivation during the conversion process?

Casagrand: I encourage the CEO or chief information officer to bring in the stakeholders and the conversion team to get them excited from day one.

You need to keep up the conversion team’s morale, so we suggest the credit union create a theme for each conversion.

Bilke: The data part is pretty straightforward—we’ve been doing this a long time. But it’s challenging to get the credit union people on board and engaged and understanding why you’re changing the system and why that’s important to them.

Wrapping the conversion in a theme works wonders for getting everyone on board.

The most common theme, which matches with the nine-month conversion timeline, is having a baby. A lot of credit unions have sports themes, CSI, and Star Wars.

I like to call the credit union CEO a day or two after the system goes live and see how things are going. We want to have as few post-conversion issues as possible.

The CEOs often tell me it’s so quiet and calm that they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Next: Advice for CUs

CU Mag: What other advice do you offer CUs?

Casagrand: Before the conversion, clean up your processes and do an inventory of your forms. Eliminate everything you won’t be using anymore. Purge your system—get rid of the junk.

Also, get accustomed to the system before making changes. Don’t do too much customization until you’re used to the system.

Bilke: I tell credit unions, “don’t assume your vendor will convert you without your help. I can drag you through a pretty good conversion, but it will never be a great conversion unless you’re fully engaged.”

Doing a conversion without the credit union’s help would be a monumental task. The credit union knows its members, business processes, and quirky accounts. If it’s not engaged in the process, that creates tremendous risk to the conversion.

Also, the little things do matter, especially interfaces. Consider that the typical $1 billion asset credit union has 30 to 40 interfaces that must work flawlessly from day one, whether it’s pulling a credit report, ordering checks or plastics—the list goes on.

You have to identify, test, and ensure you have all of those interfaces in place and working when you go live. When you do cut over, it’s fast-moving because you have all of the ATM, share drafts, payroll, and other transactions coming in.

It’s a huge financial responsibility for us and the credit union. There’s a lot of money moving around—much more so than in the past. I did conversions 25 years ago and it’s much more complex today.

With good planning and execution, a core conversion can be a great experience for the credit union and its employees.

Compare and contrast the credit union movement's top core processors and their systems' features and functions using Credit Union Magazine's 2011 Information Systems Guide.