Can companies use technology to stay up-close and personal with their customers, even while the businesses grow? For some credit unions in Canada, the answer is yes.
Credit unions strive for low costs and high efficiencies that accrue directly back to the individuals and small-business members that own them. An emerging strategy for achieving savings is through growth, in terms of the number of members and in the number of services provided.
But growth presents a challenge: How can credit unions expand and reduce costs, while maintaining the close-knit, community-based services that have made them a popular banking option for more than 100 years?
The question of how to maintain service while experiencing growth is a central one for inUnison Technology Services Ltd., a joint venture between Calgary-based First Calgary Savings and B.C.-based First West, which provides IT solutions and services to credit union partners. The company's chief information officer, Michele Morgan, says IT is playing a major role in creating value for the credit union industry as it expands.
Credit unions, like all financial institutions, have long lived and breathed through technology. Some of the earliest IT applications in the mid-20th century were built to make and track financial transactions. That hasn't changed, but what is changing is the increasingly strategic role IT is playing, particularly in the creation of customer-service applications. "Improving the member experience is vital, and IT is becoming a source of a number of feature rich applications that are making a difference," Ms. Morgan says.
InUnison manages IT in a strategic manner. It sees it as an enabler of business value. Just one indicator of IT's evolving role and the growing importance placed on it by inUnison's partners is the fact that Ms. Morgan's group has a profit and loss responsibility. It's a far cry from how IT is viewed in many firms, which see it purely as an area of expenditure. "Our credit union partners are much more in tune with IT as a set of business services, not just a collection of costs and functions," Ms. Morgan says.
When First West's regional division, Envision Financial, sought to improve the experience of its new members, IT played a key role in the solution. Envision partnered with inUnison to streamline its account opening process and improve the IT applications used by employees when interacting with new customers. As a result, the entire process has been simplified and staff now have more time to get to know new members and determine what banking solutions best fit their needs. This allows Envision to maintain a community-based approach while pursuing a strategy aimed at growth.
A large part of inUnison's success comes from the company's strategic use of IT. As CIO, Ms. Morgan is not just overseeing the IT function, she's a business leader who manages a multitude of relationships. Her role requires her to apply technology to meet the needs of a diverse range of partners with different regulatory requirements, objectives, timelines and cultures. In this environment, Ms. Morgan says IT is playing a major role in "strengthening their credit union partners' relationships with their members by creating customer-service-driven solutions that have real positive impact."
IT isn't just about "keeping the lights on." It can be a lead contributor to internal and external business processes. InUnison has demonstrated that the people like Ms. Morgan who are running a firm's IT function are more than IT professionals, they are business leaders that can act as strategic partners in business expansion.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Ronald T. Cenfetelli is an assistant professor in the management information systems division at the Sauder School of Business of the University of British Columbia. He is on the board of directors for the Vancouver chapter of the CIO Association of Canada.
This is one of a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Your Business website.