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MDC Credit Unions: Innovation in Action

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Here at MDC, we have long championed the notion that organizations with strong cultures of innovation are the most adaptable and successful in our industry’s rapidly changing environment. And while MDC does offer a variety of ways to help our owners be as innovative as possible (including a brand-new line of on-demand training videos covering innovation, productivity, and member experience design available on MDC Connect!), we are also lucky to serve a group of owners that are already ahead of the curve and actively practicing innovation at their credit unions. To explore what innovation looks like at leading credit unions, we recently reached out to several leaders at MDC owners and asked them to share how their organizations prioritized innovation.

At Desert Financial Credit Union in Phoenix, AZ, innovation means “providing continually better financial solutions to our members through the access channel they choose,” according to Wayne Oleksak, VP of Member Experience and Innovation at the credit union’s technology CUSO, Switchthink. This ethos about innovation rings true for Desert Financial’s members, who can use their Amazon Alexa or Google devices to check account balances or verify upcoming payments at home or on the road, just by asking out loud. The credit union also touts that they tripled the number of new members who joined their cooperative through digital channels rather than by visiting a branch (and that’s pre-COVID!). Oleksak also reported that their dedicated innovation staff participate with the credit union’s strategic planning, helping ensure that they are prepared for the future.

Meanwhile, at Lake Trust Credit Union in Brighton, MI, innovation is a mindset of focusing on the future and wanting members to feel like the experience they have is unique. Lake Trust employs individuals dedicated to challenging the status quo, and they incorporate formal innovation tools, like those developed by the Institute for the Future and featured in MDC’s Scenario Planning Project, into their operations. When asked what advice they’d give their peers, Lake Trust innovation champions Noreen Schafer and Bill Lantzy recommend that credit unions looking to innovate should “carve out the resources needed, even if it’s just starting with one person and then building from there to help create leaders in your organization who have an innovation mindset. That will help bring others along.”

Crossing back over the country to Tacoma, WA, Sound Credit Union’s innovation efforts focus on three categories: technology platforms that support the CU’s business operations, new products or services for members, and delivering member services through new channels, according to Martin Walker, Sound’s VP, Digital Experience & Innovation. Sound’s two dedicated innovation professionals also meet regularly with their strategy team, making sure that these two forces for progress within their organization coordinate and collaborate over their efforts. Walker sees Sound’s dedication to innovation as a differentiator in the market, stating “it’s not enough to say you have the best service or that you’re member-owned, you have to make the member feel their experience with you is different than what they get elsewhere, and to do that you have to innovate.”

At Michigan State University Federal Credit Union, Ben Maxim, AVP of Digital Strategy and Innovation, advises that credit unions formally dedicate staff to innovation, stating that “while innovating should be a part of everyone’s job, it’s hard to consistently push the envelope when doing so isn’t someone’s specific responsibility. So while you still want everyone thinking innovatively, you also need to dedicate staff and systems, or the drive toward innovation fades.” He is now developing a four-part innovation strategy for his credit union, focusing on fintech partnerships, the development of an innovation center where cross-functional internal teams are recruited to explore innovative technologies both homegrown and from partners, external partnerships with innovation partners (like MDC), and the development of an organization-wide ideation program in which MSUFCU employees can submit and collaborate on their ideas. The East Lansing-based credit union also has a team of in-house developers, which has helped the organization build its own mobile and online banking solutions, allowing them to rapidly adapt or add features when new ideas come up, such as a recent video chat solution to help members maintain the human connection with their credit unions during the pandemic.

At Altra Federal Credit Union in Onalaska, WI, they see innovation as one of the ways they help their staff and members live their best lives, according to Dawn Fread, VP of Project Management and Business Innovation. To help their organization do so, they have a multi-tiered system of formal innovation programs for staff. At the first level, interested staff receive innovation training over the course of one year with a focus on design thinking. At the second level, five participants vet and develop ideas submitted to the credit union’s innovation portal, which all staff are invited to contribute to. This group of five also helps lead annual innovation events, including the credit union’s innovation week and hack-a-thon. Finally, to those who wish to take their innovating to the final level, Altra offers their staff an opportunity to complete an innovation certification program and help lead the credit union’s various innovation initiatives. More than just delivering new ideas, Fread says her credit union’s focus on innovation has also changed the culture. “One of the biggest successes is the culture of innovation we are building within the business units. Several departments have had ongoing efforts or contests pertaining to innovation, and we have people now dedicated to this effort. I believe our staff knows they will be heard and maybe even encouraged to think beyond their job and look for ways to do things better. Being a creative thinker is a differentiator at Altra and can even help people get hired or promoted.”

All of our interviewees stressed that innovation is a requirement in order to remain competitive and relevant in today’s industry. Additionally, all identified multiple resources from MDC that have helped them innovate at their home credit unions, from the NextUP program, to the tools delivered in our Scenario Planning Project, to simply the opportunity to try out a new vendor or product at a discount via one of our project pilots.

MDC owners looking to learn more about how MDC can help them become more innovative, including our newest line of innovation and productivity training videos and additional MDC-exclusive opportunities from the industry’s leading innovation training consultancy, FutureThink, should reach out today.