Let's not waste a good crisis. We have an unprecedented opportunity staring us in the face. For years, study after study has concluded that credit unions, above all other financial institutions, are highly trusted by their members. Right now, that embedded trust is more valuable than ever before as the financial system reels from multiple breaches of fiduciary responsibility.
But let's not be smug about this because, when the dust settles, our members will have the same or worse financial issues they did when they went running after some of the too-good-to-be-true loan and investment solutions that have devastated our financial system. We, credit unions and CUSOs, need to be ready beyond offering our members a set of safe-haven, traditional products and delivery channels. Instead, we need to efficiently and effectively deliver an expanded suite of innovative financial solutions to solve existing and future challenges. This kind of innovation can only occur if we figure out how to work together so that the wealth of inventive talent within credit unions and CUSOs is effectively spread throughout the industry.
There are many organizational structures available to facilitate credit union collaboration. Formal and informal information sharing has been a hallmark of the credit union movement from the beginning. Collaboration for the purpose of creating, scaling and delivering the kind of innovation necessary for the future calls for new and highly intentional models of collaboration.
This thought is not new, so what's stopping us? Ego, being stuck in the mud, countless shifting grains of sand, lack of trust and fear of failure. Success in any endeavor usually entails some missteps and outright failures. While this doesn't justify poor planning or lack of accountability, we need to go into collaborative ventures expecting some trials.
In 25 years of observing and participating in credit union and CUSO endeavors, I've had the privilege of seeing some pretty neat stuff. Here's one way of categorizing them:
Collaborative CUSO's by design: There are
successful examples of CUSOs formed not for a
specific business purpose but for the purpose of collaborating and innovating.
Collaborative CUSO's by evolution: There are successful examples of separate CUSOs formed for essentially the same business purpose that then joined forces to scale their success.
Collaborative CUSO's by innovation: There are successful CUSO's launched from a single credit union or corporate with such an innovative model that others were drawn to them.
So, if we have a tremendous opportunity before us and we have strengths and successes to build upon, how do we do more? How can we as an industry increase both the speed and volume of collaboration and innovation?
NACUSO launched the National Center for Collaboration and Innovation in 2007 and recently announced a year-long collaboration design and implementation program in partnership with Pepperdine University.
A slew of credit union-CUSO related blogs and pages exist on social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Plaxo, Ning and more. While these efforts are not structured toward stirring collaboration and innovation, they could greatly accelerate the exchange of ideas and lead to collaborative efforts.
Nontraditional meetings, often sponsored by CUSOs or arising out of social networking sites, are much more informal and multi-directional than traditional trade group meetings.
Credit unions and CUSOs may just have a once in a lifetime opportunity to creatively apply the norms and technology of today to the visions of the founders of the credit union movement. There is certainly still a need for promoting thrift in the world today. To do so, we must collaborate and innovate.
Steve French is director of MemberMap LLC, a financial services CUSO owned by Cinco Federal Credit Union. He can be reached at 513-297-5200 or sfrench@