are mergers' economic rewards. These gains may be wiped out, however, if bank investment managers do not move swiftly and aggressively to merge trust and investment processing services. The faster you move, the more you save. Some institutions decide to blend their systems into a compatible whole. Others opt to reconfigure various systems into a completely new entity, creating an original look and feel. Most often, the parties to an acquisition select a conversion-based process. In this scenario, one institution's system is designated as dominant, and the other's accounts are converted to it. Our analysis of more than 50 conversions involving 200,000 accounts in the last 18 months has uncovered inherent challenges. Here are a few of the most daunting hurdles, and the best ways to overcome them:

The most critical factor in a rapid conversion is top management support. Without it, a conversion process will have disappointing results simply because top management's goals were not made clear from the start. Before embarking, get top-level support from the merging organizations. Then pull in staff throughout all levels and operational areas. Be mindful that many employees will be fearful of losing their jobs. Their involvement must be directed with sensitivity. Select a provider who will assign a conversion team focused exclusively on your project-a team with skills learned from dealing with similar conversions.

The desire for quick results must be balanced against the need to test processes thoroughly at every step. The consequences of improper testing can be a new system loaded with costly oversights that require retrofits. Time spent improving the system during the conversion will pay post- conversion dividends. When enlisting third-party help, be sure your provider has an established track record with institutions of your size.

Some institutions focus only on the technical aspects of bringing one system over to another. While this approach may be adequate, and may save precious time, it may also cause banks to miss opportunities to achieve other valuable goals. Don't lose sight of major objectives such as defining the future of the organizational structure and its goals, including financial goals, market share, and market segments. Even when time is of the essence, use the conversion as an opportunity to rethink your business direction. Identify opportunities for increased efficiency and market share and new market segments for the merged organization's product offerings. Be alert for built-in efficiencies that may result in new capabilities.

In the not-too-distant past, most conversion processes were structured along a critical path with hand-offs at predetermined mileposts. This method is cost-effective in the short run and is still used heavily. However, unforeseen problems may occur later, putting the entire process in jeopardy. To avoid this problem, work with a provider who can assemble a relationship team that will remain in place throughout the conversion.

Trust is an extremely complex business. Technical advances have actually added layers of complexity. Any missed detail can delay the entire process. One misstep may result in failing to meet a business need. Therefore, insist on detailed project planning. Work with a provider who will demonstrate issues-tracking tools throughout the process. These tools should include documentation of what decisions were made in specific areas during the process and why.

When redefining the banking process, human factors are often overlooked - or not considered at all. On day one, will every staff member know exactly what to do, and will he or she know how to do the job correctly? The solution is to practice, practice, practice. Data conversion simulations and live processing tests should be built in. Each phase of the conversion must have a testing and simulation component. If proprietary, custom programming is involved, do not test it in isolation. Plan a whole business day dress rehearsal to check the whole integrated system. Finally, even if the conversion works flawlessly on day one, attention should remain focused on business goals, not just people using a new system.

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