CU Water Cooler

Learning, Spending, and Spending on Learning

Matt DavisComment

The most important thing credit unions can do to improve the lives of members is to improve the skill set of their employees. Thankfully, credit unions have always done a great job of coming together in the name of professional development, planning, or collaboration. You'd be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of days each year without some sort of webinar, conference, workshop, planning session, or political action initiative is taking place.

Source: NCUA Call Report Data

Source: NCUA Call Report Data

In 2013 credit unions spent $318,125,247 on travel and conferences, according to NCUA data. It's hard to say how much is too much to spend in this category, but it may be interesting to give this number some context. For $318 million dollars, credit unions could have:

  • Bought Simple ($117 MM), Andera ($44.5 MM), ByAllAccounts ($28 MM), Pozitron ($98.1 MM), AND Yub ($30 MM)
  • Built 19 of the National Football League's 31 football stadiums 
  • Sent 13,900 students to an public university
  • Hired a team of 1,100 developers to build an open-source core data processor
  • Aired 80 Super Bowl ads
  • Hired 40 college professors in each state, nearly one per every three U.S. credit unions

While the above may be an unfair comparison, it's amazing how things add up, isn't it? Since 2005, $2.6 billion has been spent in this category. This isn't to say stop traveling and going to conferences. This isn't even to say that "travel and conferences" perfectly describes everything categorized in this expense line. Rather, it's to highlight the massive opportunity cost of our activities. The primary mission of a credit union is to maximize member value. As such, we must make sure that each time we spend members' money, there is a reasonable expectation that the expenditure will yield a meaningful improvement in member value.

Here are five ideas on how we can optimize this expense item:

  1. Set clearer expectations for conference outcomes. Targeted learning works the best. Approach conference registration only after you've answered these questions: What do I need to improve? Is this a knowledge, effort, or strategy deficit? What do I need to learn? Who do I need to learn from? What should success look like? What is the optimal way to realize that success? When you've answered these questions, you're prepared to prescribe the right remedy. Maybe a conference is what you need. Maybe it's a mentor or a consultant. Maybe you need to visit a peer credit union. Maybe you just need to read a book, surf the web, or talk to a colleague.
  2. Share the costs. Conferences are great examples of how organizations can spread the costs of education. Speakers and event facilities are expensive. The more times those expenses can be divided, the better the math works for everyone involved. More work can be done, however. Imagine a fully-equipped conference facility owned by credit unions. Imagine getting the best content in the industry streamed straight to your office. How about joint strategic planning sessions? The sixth cooperative principle could save us a collective fortune, and drive even better education results.
  3. Pay for your own frills. You work extremely hard as a credit union employee, there's no doubt about it. Your members are hard workers, too. Use that lens to look at travel expenses. There's nothing wrong with a meal at a fancy restaurant, cocktails with peers, or a round of golf at an elite course if you're paying for it. The second you start using credit union money for those expenses, it's a different conversation. Spend as if your members will see the receipts.
  4. Hold yourself accountable. When attending an event, make sure your optimize your chances for meaningful development. Get to know the speakers, talk to peers, listen, take notes, and share your takeaways with your co-workers when you get back. Also, since you've attended an event under the premise of personal and professional development, hold yourself accountable. Write down the specific improvements you seek to experience, and measure the outcomes. Are you getting more accomplished? Are you doing things differently? Have you improved your team's performance? If not, why not? If so, what are you doing to share that knowledge to others? Tim and I hold ourselves accountable at events by forcing ourselves to publish recaps of what we learned. When you know you're going to have to write or speak about the sessions you attend, it forces you to pay even closer attention.
  5. Extend the conversations. Conference agendas contain explicit start and end dates, but for smart attendees like you that's not the case. The conversations and relationships you experienced with speakers and attendees should continue as long as they are mutually beneficial. Follow-up with those people. Have them hold you accountable for specific performance improvements. Hold them accountable. Set goals together. Change the world.

Smart, curious, focused, and ambitious employees are the lifeblood of credit unions. Spend money to feed that spirit, but do so with a constant eye on the prize: maximizing member value. If you're not getting the results you're looking for, try out the list above. If you're looking for a place to practice, I hope you'll join us at the CU Water Cooler Symposium.


Matt Davis is the co-founder of 6th Story and CU Water Cooler. He's a leading thinker, writer, speaker, and creator in the credit union world. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two sons.