By Julie Knudson
Core conversions are challenging under the best circumstances, requiring significant planning and well-crafted processes to ensure everything goes smoothly. Add in a pandemic and the travel restrictions, social distancing measures and remote work arrangements that come with it, and converting a core system takes on a new level of complexity. But delaying such a project isn’t always possible or even preferable. While COVID-19 raged, some banks moved ahead with their core conversion plans and learned some surprising—and valuable—lessons along the way.
Laying the groundwork
The foundation for a successful core conversion takes shape long before the go-live date. These early groundwork activities are particularly important when bank staff and provider teams have limited onsite access. Lori Tremonti, VP for implementations and professional services at Fiserv, says the implementation team was a largely remote group prior to the pandemic and that experience proved helpful to clients. “I would encourage FIs to focus on getting their teams’ mental model in place,” Tremonti says. That means helping workers understand how to prepare for the day’s activities and ensuring they’re fully present and engaged during online meetings. Leaders should also be mindful of the disruption to normal workflows for the conversion team as well as other employees. “Having the FI’s executives drive the conversion is critical as an endorsement and also as encouragement to the whole team,” Tremonti says.
Ensuring staff are trained on the new system so they can assist each other as well as the bank’s customers is another important component in the preplanning process. Conversions done in a remote setting increase the need for comprehensive training, says Giovanni Mastronardi, group president of enterprise banking at Computer Services, Inc. “I worry about remote training because when people are onsite, we get a conference room or we’re sitting there training,” he says. “With remote training, we’re taking it more on faith that people aren’t multi-tasking.” Emails and other distractions can easily pull employees away from online training. Learning styles also come into play, with different personalities navigating remote education in different ways. “Some people are visual learners, and they don’t ask as many questions even in a live setting,” says Mastronardi. Interacting through a computer monitor can influence that dynamic even further, so any remote training program should accommodate all types of learners.
At Midwest Independent BankersBank in Jefferson City, Missouri, a conversion accomplished in 2020 was supported by an inclusive team of stakeholders. “All the same people who decided who our core provider would be were the same people involved in all of the conversion activities and they still are today as we work to take advantage of efficiencies and make full use of the new core system,” says Sheila Noll, EVP and COO at MIB. Disruptions came and went in the form of travel restrictions and local shutdowns, but the conversion team’s broad reach across the organization and unity through the full lifecycle of the process provided the support the bank needed to overcome the unique hurdles of a remote conversion.
Even as regional reopenings happened, then were rolled back, many parts of MIB’s workforce remained remote. The group recognized the need for a chief communicator to help keep the dispersed conversion team connected and ensure information was shared throughout the project. “We had people working from home, people at our disaster recovery site and here in our main office,” says Roger Mealy, MIB’s CFO. “Meetings became a little more challenging, but we got used to talking on the phone and doing desktop sharing and things like that.” Online collaboration tools substituted for face-to-face discussions, keeping MIB’s conversion on the path to success.
The team at Long Island-based New York Community Bancorp lived “a day in the life” in the months leading up to the bank’s 2020 conversion. Executing the process successfully meant ensuring that all employees working from home had reliable connectivity and access to resources. “Our folks at NYCB did their normal daily work and then they did a ‘day in the life’ in all of our test systems so we were positive that everyone was properly trained on how to operate the system and they all had correct user access,” says Barbara Tosi-Renna, NYCB’s assistant COO. This preparedness included issuing a playbook, creating a detailed schedule of activities, and distributing lists of call-in numbers so the entire team was ready and able to continue servicing customers once the conversion was complete.
Another consideration in any conversion is ensuring the bank’s various business units are represented alongside IT, including central operations, lending, deposits and credit. “Everyone has to put in an effort for a remote conversion to be successful,” says Jaime Manriquez, CIO and CISO at Santa Cruz County Bank in Santa Cruz, California, where a remote core conversion was completed in 2020. With the right stakeholders present, expectations were established up front and the body of work clearly defined, preventing surprises and scope creep from gaining a foothold. The team relied on project management software and frequent meetings to ensure strong communication and organized information sharing. “That kept everything moving forward, not just internally but the external vendors were also involved in the process,” says Manriquez, who is also a member of ABA’s Core Platforms Committee.
Supporting technology becomes a primary player
Conversions conducted remotely created some additional considerations around supporting and complementary technologies. “The bank’s infrastructure is a key component,” Manriquez says, adding that bandwidth capacity must be sufficient to handle increased network traffic without creating choke points or latency. “When emails and file transfers are done between the vendor and the bank, they need to be transmitted in a timely manner.” His institution discovered an email firewall lacked the processing power to keep up, creating a lag of nearly 10 minutes in some cases. “Once we replaced that firewall, we were able to expedite that communication down to one or two minutes, max,” Manriquez says. Traditional hallway chats and other face-to-face discussions must also be factored into the network’s digital traffic flows, and a proactive review of the bank’s technology capabilities should be conducted early in the project.
Some banks needed to boost their digital collaboration capabilities to keep their communications going. A single Webex line likely can’t sustain an entire team through the planning stages, mock conversion exercises, troubleshooting and training. Existing call centers also aren’t typically scaled to handle the increased traffic. “Call volumes will be double for the first couple of weeks,” Tremonti says. “Be ready for that in terms of bandwidth and circuits so you don’t take the phone lines down for everybody.” Sizing up the call center function prior to the conversion also keeps customers’ wait times to a minimum as people navigate visible changes to the system, especially if lobby access is limited or health concerns prevent customers from connecting with branch staff directly.
Are remote conversions here to stay?
Banks discovered some efficiencies in the remote conversion process that could be applied to in-person projects as the pandemic subsides and institutions regain some normalcy in operations. Tosi-Renna found the remote structure helpful in some ways. “Folks that we needed to reach were right where they needed to be,” she says. Locating files and other information often required only a quick phone call. “They were able to go right there and look at the file with the business owner on the phone.” Where the conventional process involved working with the vendor’s onsite team—who then would perhaps need to contact someone else to confirm the status of a file—making only one call turned out to be simple and expedient.
A hybrid approach to conversions will likely remain an option going forward. Tremonti says bringing teams together onsite offers several intangible benefits. “When you’re with a client, you see some of the challenges they’re facing that we don’t see it if they don’t ask about it.” Sitting next to an associate gives the vendor an opportunity to share shortcuts and other tips to help bank staff streamline tasks in the new system. However, Tremonti adds that remote teams bring some notable perks, such as access to resources outside regular hours. “We’re available to them in times when traditionally we wouldn’t have been,” she says. As regional restrictions lift and business travel resumes, banks may eventually opt to return to some degree of face-to-face interactions while pocketing the efficiencies of remote resources.
Julie Knudson is a frequent contributor to the ABA Banking Journal.