Meridian Credit Union adopts SOA for easier apps

Meridian Credit Union is moving toward a service-oriented architecture (SOA) in order to help its frontline staff spend less time dealing with disparate applications and more time helping customers.

The St. Catharines, Ont.-based company is using Microsoft’s BizTalk Server 2006, as well as Microsoft’s help in building an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB), to essentially consolidate its various applications into a single front-end system. Meridian plans to have the platform fully rolling by November.

“When someone comes in to our front counter or calls the call centres, our employees try to work through three, four, or five different systems to service the member,” Stephen Gesner, CIO at Meridian Credit Union, said. “As a result, instead of actually having fruitful conversations with the customer, they are heads-down, trying to pilot what seems to be a space shuttle with multiple applications windows popping up. So, this was a no-brainer for us to create a front-end that made sense for our business model as opposed to being driven by all these back-end applications.”

Gesner said that because of Meridian’s various applications, its employees were not able to get a unified view of its customers. He said this was something that hurt the productivity of the bank tellers, as well as, negatively affecting satisfaction of the customer.

“We can get a view through all the products we manufacture, but we couldn’t get a unified view to pull in their MasterCard balances, their insurance levels, their mutual fund holdings, and other data from the various applications,” Gesner said.

According to Gesner, the lack of a streamlined system can make one of the most fundamental aspects of the banking industry, the account opening process, a huge chore. He said that with the way products and systems have been built in the past, companies have tried to add people to the products as opposed to products to the people.

“If you go into any of the big banks and say, ‘I want to get a credit card, a mortgage, a line of credit and a checking account,’ they have to go through the process of setting you up on all four separate systems,” Gesner said. “We had the same problem. We can’t change the underlying technology, but what we can do is put a layer on top of that so essentially, we make it look like we are adding products to the member as opposed to adding members to the products.

“So, in that critical account opening process, with this infrastructure we’re putting in with BizTalk and ESB, we are able to capture all the information for the member to populate all those back-end systems in a single session, commit the data to the back-end systems, and print out an integrated and consolidated form that tells customers everything,” he added.

Chris Brakel, product manager for eBusiness at Microsoft Canada, said the interest from Canadian customers looking to move to SOA infrastructure, along with the company’s ESB guidance offerings, has been tremendous. Brankel said that customers are finding out that the “big bang” approach to SOA doesn’t work as companies don’t want to commit themselves to long three or four year projects.

“They want to take a project that is do-able in six months to a year and where they can see rapid iterations of it,” Brakel said. “This is the new way of looking at SOA, in the sense that, there needs to be a compelling business reason to look at integration and adopt that SOA. And in Meridian’s case there certainly was.”

Meridian is the product of a 2005 merger between the St. Catharines-based Niagara Credit Union and Toronto-based HEPCOE Credit Union. One company used a Microsoft infrastructure, while the other used a Unix infrastructure, which caused some issues following the merger. Gesner said the lessons from this experience, coupled with his anticipation of a future legacy refresh, provided further reason for the upgrade.

“When we went through our merger, one of the major expenses and time consuming activities was training people coming to use the new front-ends,” Gesner said. “So, we learned our lesson and decided our goal is to have a front-end that models how Meridian wants to do business and also allows us to swap out applications on the back-side without changing how we deal with the customer at the front counter.”

Brakel said that Meridian realized that, as a growing company, moving to a consolidated SOA was a necessity if they wanted to remain successful.

“The reason you start growing is typically because customers are very happy with the services you’re providing, and you may be acquiring people for scale and including new services,” Brakel said. “And when you think of these two separate financial services organizations coming together, its biggest worry is going to be how it can get those customers access to those new services as quickly as possible, so it can start realizing the ROI on growing its business.’”

Meridian Credit Union has more than 209,000 personal and business accounts and is Ontario largest and Canada’s third largest credit union.

The 2007 Microsoft SOA & Business Process Conference is being held this week in Calgary. The conference is also coming Toronto next and Montreal next month.

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