Turn Chatter Into Something That Matters

There’s wisdom in the crowd, but it’s up to credit unions to start the discussion.


Great ideas can come from anywhere. But every individual and group has limitations to their creativity. That’s why crowdsourcing ideas from those outside your normal wheelhouse — be they employees, members, or the general public — can pay big dividends. Whether you’re launching a formal campaign to solicit ideas or simply keeping your ears open for new opportunities, there are many ways to turn those around you into a valuable creative resource. As the following examples show, crowdsourcing itself might not provide the holistic answer you’re looking for, but it can provide a good place to start.

Opposites Attract

When Redwood Credit Union ($2.2B, Santa Rosa, CA) wanted to rebuild its lending processes and improve efficiency, it didn’t start with a high-dollar solution or external consultant, says Cynthia Negri, the credit union’s chief lending officer.

“We were looking to take care of the low-hanging fruit ourselves because we wanted to hire a outside consultant later on,” she says.

To find easy fixes, Redwood put together two groups who rarely interacted face to face — the back office and the front line —to see what kind of technology and process improvements they could generate organically.The IT team spent several days with the front line, watching them work and noting any points of pain that appeared during system usage.In addition to a lengthy list of technology fixes, the IT reps also helped freshen up the front line’s technology expertise, filling in gaps in their knowledge base and giving them alternatives for the inefficient workarounds they had been using.

As a result of this interaction and other efficiency efforts, Redwood has been able to drop its efficiency ratio from around 73% a year ago — which was on par with credit union peers of $1 billion or more in assets — to just 57.42% at midyear, according to Callahan & Associates’ Peer-to-Peer analytics.

Give The Public Real Power (And Real Rewards)

Members and the general public know when they are given real opportunities to contribute versus simply being paid lip service. One of the benefits of credit union membership is the opportunity to vote on board representation and major credit union decisions such as mergers or conversions; those are luxuries customers of for-profit financial institutions do not have. But if member participation and engagement is lacking, it might be because the scope of these activities has been so severely narrowed that it mitigates the ability of members to contribute.

For example, many credit unions undertaking a rebrand first turn to a marketing or advertising firm to generate a list of names. The board then approves the names before finally turning them over to members for final selection. E Federal Credit Union ($295M, Baton Rouge, LA), however, has taken a different route. For years, Baton Rouge residents have confused the credit union with a similarly named financial institution in the area. Others mistakenly identified the lowercase “e” in its logo with Internet Explorer and assumed it was an electronic-only institution. In fact, the credit union has eight full-service branches. After converting from a SEG-based to a community charter in 2007, E decided it was finally time to overhaul its brand and unlock its full awareness potential.

“We decided since this name change was going to affect our members, we’d ask them for ideas first,” says Chris Melancon, chief administrative officer.

E started by petitioning name suggestions directly from the public and offered the chance at a $1,000 payout for the winning idea. It promoted the campaign via social media, which garnered 554 name submissions from members as well as residents of the community. The credit union then excluded submissions that were too similar to another institution or could not be trademarked. Now, it has narrowed down a list of top contenders that — although not quite right as submitted — it will take to an agency as the credit union’s top choices.

“We were able to do a lot of the legwork before sending out the request for proposal, and that was a big factor in the final price,” Melancon says. “We’d definitely consider using this type of strategy again.”

Other institutions overseas, such as Singapore’s DBS Bank, have even let different groups participate in branch design competitions, including categories for customers 26 and younger. If your members are truly the owners of the credit union, shouldn’t you consider turning to them first for the names, facilities, and functionalities you want to implement?

Take The Reins Off Idea Generation

Videogame maker Valve struck a nerve with traditional managers everywhere when it publically released its employee manual in 2012. Titled “A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do,” the manual provides numerous examples of Valve’s flat management structure, which eliminates hierarchy in favor of individual project ownership and peer collaboration. At Valve, employees can choose which projects they want to be a part of or even start their own.

Valve’s management approach is too lax to be replicated in a highly regulated industry, especially one where people’s financial lives are on the line, but there is something to be said for letting employees petition for, initiate, and own pet projects to completion.

Affinity Plus Credit Union’s ($1.7B, St. Paul, MN) Make A Change For The Better program tasks every one of its nearly 500 employees with addressing problems and opportunities within the credit union. Employees work in small groups to hash out ideas and present them to a group moderator. Once an idea has passed through the vetting process, which at times requires the consultation and guidance of an executive team member, the employee who initially had the idea becomes a project manager who is responsible for creating a timeline, assembling an implementation team, keeping the project on track, communicating the project’s progress, and measuring post-project impact three months later. Through the program, one particularly driven member advisor managed the location selection, planning, and construction of an entire branch.

Crowdsourcing is at the heart of the credit union industry. And when credit unions have the confidence to tap the collective brainpower of their employees, members, and communities, they see a lift in the number, type, and quality of ideas these groups offer up.