Video Killed the Radio Star. Is Technology Killing Credit Unions?

I started my credit union career in 1980. There, I said it. I’ve been in the movement going on 36 years now and I’ve seen a lot of advances in technology. 

I was speaking to a young group of credit union professionals recently. You know, those elusive Millennials and I began my speech the way the first Star Wars movie began. Remember the words fading into the starlit sky….”A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away……”

It was 1980. 

  • The “computer” had no screen to look at. Everything printed on green bar paper and if a member wanted their balance you had to print it on a card you shoved into this weird little frame
  • The member account numbers were kept on a Rolodex
  • The loan applications were on paper
  • We used typewriters to type loan documents and there were three carbon copies attached. if you made too many mistakes, you ripped it out and started all over again
  • We calculated loan payments using a Burroughs machine
  • To obtain a credit report we used a phone placed in a coupler that connected us. We typed in pertinent information but if we made even one mistake we had to hang up and start again
  • There was no such thing as a credit score
  • There was no email
  • There were no cell phones
  • There was no internet
  • You took pictures with a camera and took the film to the fotomat and waited a couple of days for the film to develop
  • There was no powerpoint - we used overhead projectors or flip charts
  • All computers were DOS based. There were no mouses, no Microsoft office suite. 
  • We made graphs with graph paper and colored pencils

It was fun to describe this world to the youngsters. There were gasps, giggles, and a couple of “No way!” 

The thing I most remember about those times though - the things I really cherished?

  • We had no choice but to listen to our member’s “story” when we saw less than perfect credit.
  • We never had to sit in a dark room and look at someone’s bullet ridden power point slides as they read them to us
  • The primary way we communicated with other branches was with inner-office envelopes. It was like waiting for the mailman to arrive and it was kind of exciting
  • If we had an issue with a co-worker in the building we had to actually talk to them. Not snipe them in an email.
  • We went to a library if we wanted to research something. It was a building full of books on every subject imaginable and there was always a woman that was the Google search engine of the books that could help you. It took effort and you cherished the learning

But the thing that really smacked me upside the head on this stroll down memory lane.


Because for the most part we did a lot of our business manually.  Has technology really advanced the credit union experience? 

When I'm on the road I can check out of my hotel room, check-in for my flight, get my boarding passes and ping an Uber driver to pick me up. Then check my email. All of this ON MY PHONE! That's an amazing improvement over the old experience. 

At most credit unions It still takes about 45 minutes to set up a new member account and loan application. The processes for the most part are clunky and not experience driven. I have the “convenience” of ATM deposits if I want an 8 day hold on my checks. I can apply for a loan online and get denied immediately by a machine if my credit score does not fit within the parameters. I can take a picture of my check (about 50% of the time) and send it with my phone, but again, if I want a long hold on the funds. Is that all we have to show for 36 years of innovation?

How do we end this madness? By reframing the conversation. When you are sitting in a meeting and someone throws out a good idea, do not, I repeat, do not turn to the IT guy (or gal) and ask “Can the core processor do that?” 

Instead, always begin your question with these three powerful words:

“How might we?”

I learned this incredible way of thinking when I was an i3er with Filene Research Institute.“How might we?” shuts down the knee jerk reaction of the “Core can’t do it.” It forces us to work through solutions. Right now most credit unions need to ask the most basic “How might we?” 

  • Get a loan out the door in 10 minutes?
  • Empower our staff to approve loans?
  • Not treat members like criminals when they open a new account?
  • Stop letting our core processor hold us hostage and keep us from creating the best possible member experience?

Don't let the gift of technology kill innovation.

- Denise