Over the past few days I have had a number of long discussions with other credit unions and credit union suppliers about where our system is headed and what the challenges are.
First it seems important to realize that though we all call ourselves credit unions there is a difference behind the scenes. There are the large credit unions and the small credit unions. For the most part the size of the credit union is a differentiator in more ways than we might think.
Small credit unions must focus and understand who they are in their marketplace and what they mean to their members. With any organization of limited resources, use of resources must be dictated by need. That use of resources needs to be structured under the credit unions vision both now and for the future. They key to initiate and accomplish the vision is the ability to hold and keep a strong culture based on what I would call the 3 i’s. [Apologies to the Filene Institute for any confusion with their i3 program] Those 3 important i’s are:
Independence. This would mean that the credit union values and maintains its own sense of who it is and how it fits into the cooperative system. It means that by being independent it is accountable and responsible for its own decisions. I think credit unions have become lazy in not attempting to understand vital areas of their operation, specifically technology. They rely on the advice of others and haven’t taken the time to realize the extent and future challenges that may be in store for them when they make decisions about a banking system or switch provider without sound evidence. Knowledge starts first from admitting ones ignorance. The beauty of the credit union system is that most credit unions are willing to share any information if one begins at that humble position.
Innovation. This means keeping a key strategy that smallness brings, the ability to turn on a dime when it comes to creating and producing a product or service. When you see innovation as a strategic weapon you will be amazed at the possibilities available. You turn from the depressing “we can’t do that” to the positive “why can’t we do that”. It is very powerful when your energies are used in developing things your member wants instead of cloning what others already have.
Integrity. No credit union will last when it neglects this aspect of who they are. You cannot operate in a healthy fashion with your members or in the marketplace without this. The trust that you have will disappear when you forsake a culture established on having integrity. Sometimes it can be painful but whatever the loss, the gain is usually magnified by remaining true to who you are.
There are large credit unions that also have these attributes in their culture but because of their size they may not have them woven into their everyday fabric as much as a smaller credit union. Sometimes size diminishes the possibility of such. Small credit unions have less of an internal political life and because of this tend to approach problems differently within the credit union system. You can solve problems easily when the operational issues are solved. It becomes very difficult to finalize anything when politics become so dominant.