A SAFE Trip Through A Virtual Conversion

The South Carolina cooperative shares how it coped with the coronavirus crisis while scuttling a 30-year-old, in-house core in favor of a new, outsourced platform.

 
 

Top-Level Takeaways

  • SAFE FCU was mid-conversion when the coronavirus pandemic ended lobby service and vendor travel.
  • The cooperative’s technologists used multiple remote communications channels to convert the core and expand SAFE’s own capacity to serve members with a remote staff.

SAFE Federal Credit Union ($1.3B, Sumter, SC) had been on the Fiserv DataSafe platform for 30 years when the South Carolina cooperative began its conversion to Symitar Episys in April 2019.

Wayne Keels, Director of Continuous Improvement, SAFE FCU

Converting a primary technology platform requires planning, coordination, and careful step-by-step deployment. The process often takes a year or more, and SAFE was well along its way when the coronavirus epidemic threw a wrench into the works … but only temporarily.

SAFE and Symitar quickly shifted their work from in-person to remote, and the Palmetto State credit union is now running its core technology through a hosted arrangement.

Wayne Keels — the credit union’s director of continuous improvement who joined SAFE in December 2018 — played a key role in the process leading up to the May 18, 2020, go-live date. Here, he shares insight about his credit union’s virtual core processing conversion.

CU QUICK FACTS

SAFE FCU
Data as of 09.30.20

HQ: Sumter, SC
ASSETS: $1.3B
MEMBERS: 123,761
BRANCHES: 18
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 21.8%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 3.4%
ROA: 0.55%

How did the pandemic change your conversion plans?

Wayne Keels: When the pandemic struck, we were in the middle of the implementation and user acceptance testing phase of the project and preparing for our first mock conversion; one was planned for March and another in April leading into a May 18 go-live date.

Travel restrictions had already begun and JHA [Jack Henry & Associates, Symitar’s parent company] informed us they would not be able to travel on-site to support the scheduled dress rehearsal. Other vendors also began to send us notices of their intent not to travel.

After an urgent call between JHA and SAFE executives, we reached the consensus that we would proceed with the conversion and treat it as if it were a virtual conversion. This was based upon the positive momentum the project team had going and the confidence we had in that continuing despite the pandemic.

I reached out to each of our third-party vendors to coordinate virtual support. We were of the mindset that if we were to move forward, then we had better prepare as if we would have no on-site support at go-live. That became our attitude for all preparation from that point forward.

4 Tips To Tackle A Virtual Conversion

 

SAFE FCU navigated the crucial final weeks of its core processing platform conversion after the pandemic struck. Here, Wayne Keels, the South Carolina cooperative’s director of continuous improvement, shares four best practices to help any shop that finds itself in a similar situation.

  • Standardize and map out business procedures and processes end-to-end. This is especially important for the manual tasks that occur outside of the systems that involve file maintenance activities.
  • Formulate a database cleanup plan early, then assign resources to employees who can dedicate time outside of their day-to-day jobs. These individuals can transition into database validator roles during the conversion. “There are many data cuts involved to migrate the data from the old core to the new core,” Keels says.
  • Dedicate resources early to assess computer equipment, systems, and network infrastructure. Lack of focus early on can lead to churn downstream and increase project risks.
  • Define points of contacts and accountable owners upfront. This goes for everyone from internal process and procedures and third-party vendors to individual core contract modules and integrated products. Then, spend quality time developing a contact matrix and communications plan.

How did the pandemic change your plans for what will be remote and what will be hands-on in the future?

WK: We revisited our business continuity and disaster recovery policies and identified areas of opportunity. The decision to move to the Symitar EASE outsourced delivery model has also put us in a better position and relieves a lot of burden for our in-house IT department.

Critical back-office functions and employees in those roles are now mobile ready when the need for them to work from home should arise. In addition, we are currently upgrading our telephone infrastructure to enable call agents to work from home.

How different is a virtual conversion from an in-person conversion?

WK: It can be daunting when you do not have the vendor on the floor, by your side, or in an adjacent office to have a face-to-face conversation or to provide hands-on instructions.

How did you accommodate that?

WK: There must be trust from both the vendor and the client; otherwise, things can quickly break down, starting with communications. We had to operate as a cohesive team even though we lacked colocation. Just like any great sports team, that type of trust is established and reinforced through practice.

Therefore, we treated our virtual dress rehearsals as close to the real thing as possible. Since we knew we would be losing that face-to-face, hands-on experience, we focused on other communication channels — such as phone, chats, and email — and the ways we could streamline and make them more robust.

I had the mobile numbers of all our vendors, and it was not unusual to text during the day and night. Availability was rarely an issue. Meeting etiquette also became an important factor. I wanted to make sure we had the right people, at the right time, for the right topics.

What were the biggest challenges in this conversion? How did you overcome them?

WK: Pre-conversion, our IT staff was spread thin and had to address many vendor inquiries pertaining to our antiquated systems that had been manually maintained by people well before them. In addition to this learning curve, they did not have the benefit of comprehensive documentation.

Post-conversion, the biggest challenge for us was incident management. We had never launched a project of this magnitude and knew, regardless of how well we prepared, there would be production incidents that would arise post go-live.

We deployed an issue management system [Atlassian Jira] that extended beyond our already established help desk tool. We identified a dedicated core team of business analysts to work between our IT department and the business SMEs and act as a conduit to the JHA care team for incident management.

Business SMEs can submit their incidents via Jira and if not resolved in-house, a new JHA case is created and linked to their client portal for tracking on our internal dashboards.

“There must be trust from both the vendor and the client; otherwise, things can quickly break down.”

Wayne Keels, Director of Continuous Improvement, SAFE FCU

What were the biggest opportunities in this conversion? How do you plan to leverage those going forward?

WK: We implemented changes and are actively exploring other opportunities within our overall change management process. We also quickly realized our communications and collaboration tools could be improved.

We have long deployed SharePoint Office 365 but did not fully utilize it before the conversion process. It now is an essential collaboration and communications tool for our internal staff. We also gravitated to using Microsoft Teams as opposed to our traditional Skype service.

Finally, since we were virtual, our phone circuits’ capacity was challenged. We have since prioritized upgrades to our phone systems that will be completed November 2020.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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