Lessons Learned From Remote Core Conversions

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Glenn Harrison Photo
Contributing Writer

10 minutes

How the pandemic led to innovations that can improve major IT system overhauls going forward

Converting the core IT platform—essentially a credit union’s central nervous system—was already a long, complicated, stressful process before the COVID-19 crisis hit. Credit unions that were mid-conversion when the nationwide shutdown began in March 2020 faced even more obstacles. But making the necessary jump to remote core conversions has been largely successful, and that shift has taught credit unions and vendors alike how to improve major system conversions now and after the pandemic.

“There’s something amazing about what happens when people are forced—for good or bad reasons—to do something differently and find a way. And the pandemic did that,” says Lauren Duffy, EVP/COO of $599 million UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, Hadley, Massachusetts.

The credit union began its conversion to Fiserv’s DNA core system (Brookfield, Wisconsin) in the fall of 2019 and went live with DNA in November 2020.

Shortly before the pandemic struck, the UMassFive College FCU conversion team had been working on-site with Fiserv employees to finish data mapping: matching the format of data in their existing database fields with the format that would be required for their new databases. 

But before they could begin the crucial testing stages, the credit union shifted employees to working remotely. Fiserv did the same.

UMassFive College FCU, Fiserv, a team of consultants and other vendors involved in the project conducted the most crucial events in the conversion—training, two rounds of preliminary testing, a mock conversion and the actual conversion—almost entirely remotely. Did it work? “Absolutely—we’d do it the same way again, even with no pandemic,” says Duffy.

They’d Do it Again

Duffy says she missed the comfort and camaraderie of face-to-face teamwork during the difficult, stressful phases of the conversion. 

But she notes that connecting with Fiserv and other vendors remotely had crucial advantages, including the following:

  • The credit union didn’t have to pay travel expenses for Fiserv and other vendor employees.
  • Because vendor employees didn’t have travel days—which can be complicated by weather and other variables—they were more available.
  • Credit union and vendor employees didn’t have to cram all their interactions into standard business hours as often as they would have while working face-to-face.

Duffy acknowledges that last point can be a double-edged sword, especially for middle managers. They have to run day-to-day operations and core conversion preparations at the same time. “These are the people who know the details of how to best set the new system up. So, you cannot recognize and reward that team enough,” Duffy says. 

Working from home means you’re never really out of the office. For many employees, this added more pressure to what they were already enduring because of the pandemic, she points out. 

“As a leader, you have to be the one to give that group permission to unplug—to pace themselves,” Duffy says. “You don’t want people burning out three weeks before go-live.” 

Shanon McLachlan
Symitar, a division of Jack Henry & Associates
Our team members and the credit union team members all said, ‘Let’s embrace the changes and work through it together.’

Communication Builds Confidence

When employees are working on the core conversion around the clock, setting up a good project communication system is critical to keeping everyone coordinated, says Duffy.

Duffy and her team used the Slack business communication platform to create channels for making certain decisions, to escalate issues to the appropriate experts and to get answers.

“The beauty of this type of technology is that everyone can see answers to specific questions. You’ve got a great way to accelerate the sharing of knowledge and resources,” Duffy notes. “It really helped us stick together and build our confidence.”

The credit union also brought in Zoom for internal video conferencing.

“It’s important to have your own internal team culture and communication tools, even if they’re similar with what you use to communicate with Fiserv,” Duffy says. “Not all of your conversations involve the vendor. You’ve got to make sure your team is ready to own this new product yourselves.”

Remote Training Works

After Fiserv shifted to almost completely remote operations, its staff mainly communicated with UMassFive College FCU via Microsoft Teams chat and video conference tools. As with the credit union, Fiserv found advantages that will help the company even after the pandemic.

Doug Donofrio had led Fiserv core implementation teams before becoming SVP/core system general manager, so he’s seen the core conversion process from many angles. He offers a few examples that illustrate the value of strong remote support for core conversions:

  • Say, for example, a staffer is serving a member shortly after a core conversion and can’t immediately recall how to find the screen needed to complete a transaction. With face-to-face support, the staffer may have been able to tap a Fiserv expert on the shoulder to get the answer right away, or the member may have to wait. Now, questions go right to a fully staffed chatroom, and answers come very quickly.
  • Fiserv conversion experts on site at a credit union served only that credit union. As it turns out, it’s actually better to have a central staff remotely serving several credit unions that are going through conversions at the same time, according to Donofrio. “That has helped us resolve some issues a lot faster and provide an even better client experience. Also, a subject matter expert supporting multiple credit unions can head off issues before they occur because they may have just come across that issue with another credit union,” he says. “That’s our new normal going forward, because it’s been very successful.”
  • On-site employee training is effective, Donofrio says, but Fiserv has found that conducting remote training sessions can be better for credit unions because they don’t have to pull large groups of employees away for sessions. Instead, they can have a few key employees take the training remotely, use the web conference tool to record the sessions, and the rest of the staff can take the training whenever they need it most. Based on this experience, Fiserv has moved training sessions earlier in the conversion process in many cases. “Credit unions can consume training at their own pace, and they can also use it later for new hires,” Donofrio notes.

Safe FCU’s Central Training

Core conversion training for SAFE Federal Credit Union, Sumter, South Carolina, turned into a hybrid centralized model. The core system vendor, Symitar, San Diego, a division of Jack Henry, had completed a 12-week cycle of on-site, train-the-trainer sessions when the COVID-19 shutdown began in March 2020. 

According to Director of Continuous Improvement Wayne Keels, SAFE FCU’s core conversion program manager, the original plan had been for the trained employees to spread out among the branches to train the rest of the 300-plus employees of the $1.3 billion credit union in February. Then they’d return to their own branches to help co-workers through the conversion in early May.

But not only was it no longer practical to have their trainers traveling, recalls Keels, several trainers tested positive for the virus and had to quarantine. “Because of the redundancy we had built into our training plan, we were able to absorb that impact,” he says. 

SAFE FCU had four full-time trainers on staff before the conversion, and the credit union converted eight of its tellers into core conversion trainers. So even when some of them couldn’t participate, the training still got done in time. 

Keels says they accomplished this by bringing branch employees to a safe, central location to maximize the remaining trainers’ time. Fortunately, SAFE FCU had recently completed a new training room designed for 24 people. Following COVID-19 safety procedures, they were able to host 12 trainees at a time. That meant they had to book extra training sessions, and with testing sessions taking place as well, the new training space was in use around the clock, says Keels.

Wayne Keels
Director of Continuous Improvement
SAFE Federal Credit Union
Don’t just hit everyone with, ‘This has to change.’ Listen to their pain points [about the existing system]. Map those pain points to the new technology and new procedures and show them how these pain points can be alleviated.


Keels notes that some challenges brought on by the pandemic reinforced the importance of bringing employees from all parts of the credit union together very early on in the core conversion process to get them involved in choosing and customizing a solution.

“Don’t just hit everyone with, ‘This has to change.’ Listen to their pain points [about the existing system]. Map those pain points to the new technology and new procedures and show them how these pain points can be alleviated,” he advises.

Teaming up branch employees with IT employees early in the process also helped SAFE FCU recruit and prepare trainers from existing staff, and that has continued to pay dividends, Keels adds. 

When branches closed due to the pandemic, the credit union devoted even more full-time employees than originally planned to training and other critical conversion tasks.

Project manager Jason Fuller led the effort to clean up the existing core databases, so the data would flow accurately into the new core system. He says at least half a dozen tellers and branch managers trained as database validators. “They became a team of specialists who worked through the data cleanup and the extensive testing we did to make sure the conversion went smoothly,” says Fuller.

These branch employees plus other tellers-turned-trainers learned the new core system from the inside out. After returning  to their branches, they’ve been a valuable resource for co-workers, explains Keels. He calls this “cross-pollination,” and he says it was worth the time investment to pull these employees out to focus on that work full-time.

The SAFE FCU Episys core conversion was one of a dozen that Symitar conducted remotely from mid-March through the end of 2020—along with more than 100 other remote system implementations. Assigning a full-time team early in the conversion process, as SAFE FCU did, is critical to a well-run conversion of this magnitude, says Symitar President Shanon McLachlan. 

It also helped that the credit union’s team had strong communicators at the helm, especially after the process became remote. 

“Nuance can get lost in emails, phone calls, voicemails—even in video conferencing,” McLachlan says. “The credit unions that have been most successful have identified employees who are good communicators on virtual channels and devoted them full-time to the conversion.”

McLachlan believes that incorporating more remote communication into a hybrid approach when the pandemic has passed will be an improvement. But he does want to return to some face-to-face interactions.

“In-person contact drives deeper relationships—you get a deeper sense of a credit union’s culture and what’s most important to them,” he says. “You get that in conversations while you’re waiting for a job to process or having lunch together and just talking about the day.”

The Biggest Surprise 

In a year of big surprises—many of them terrible—perhaps the biggest surprise for everyone who talked with us about these two core system conversions was that there were no big surprises on go-live day.

That’s the day dreaded by all involved, especially after putting in many 12- to 18-hours days in a row, as Duffy did in ramping up for UMassFive College FCU’s conversion day—which also happened to be her birthday. 

Yes, it was a busy day, and issues cropped up, Duffy says, but overall, the team followed its detailed conversion playbook, and all went well. “Best birthday present I could have asked for—I’ve wanted this for a long time,” Duffy says.

At SAFE FCU on go-live day, Keels says he and his team leaders were asking one another, “Wait a minute—there should be more smoke and fire ... shouldn’t there?”

McLachlan of Symitar has been struck by how all parties in this difficult situation have handled remote core conversions. “Our team members and the credit union team members all said, ‘Let’s embrace the changes and work through it together.’ That was amazing. That was impressive. And I think it says a lot about the community that we get to work in.”  cues icon 

Glenn Harrison writes for Credit Union Management from Stoughton, Wisconsin.

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