Harris Bank's shrewd abstention from subprime mortgages and other toxic lending practices put it in a great position to go shopping recently, picking up Ozaukee Bank in Wisconsin and First National Bank and Trust in Indiana.

While the acquisitions will add more than $30 million in revenue to the $44.3 billion-asset subsidiary of BMO Financial Group, as with all deals, the challenge was in seamlessly bringing the network of branches - in this case 72, and more than three dozen business bankers - into the fold.

To ensure smooth transfer, the institution replaced classroom training sessions with Web-enabled training tools to orient new employees on general topics such as the bank's culture, practices, history and policies; and educate them on specific Harris functions such as customer service, branch operations and lending practices.

The institution's self paced e-learning program, developed by integrating programs from a number of vendors and internal resources, allows new employees to advance through online training as quickly or slowly as their needs require. "As our network gets larger, it would become unwieldy to do manual classroom training," says Michael Oberholtzer, svp of information technology, Harris Bank, Chicago.

Automated training, measurement and assessment of talent has become the technique of choice for banks as the need to assimilate mergers "on the fly" without hiccups becomes vital in an environment that doesn't allow time for drawn out manual integrations - particularly for huge "shotgun" mergers involving distressed assets. "Historically banks have been saddled with cumbersome training systems," says Tom Kraack, partner in charge of talent management practice for financial services at Accenture.

Kraack says the ratio of e-learning time to classroom time, call the "compression ratio," is about 50 percent. What this means is a 2-hour instructor- led training course is equivalent to a one hour e-learning course, creating a substantial time savings for institutions when the integration of thousands of employees or branches is taken into consideration.

One legacy staple that's being swapped out is the "test bank," which was used for delivering training primarily at retail branches. Kraack says they are an expensive replication of the bank's production operation. "The leading practice is to sunset this capability and replace it with Web-based training, which simulates the environment," he says, adding other advantages include flexibility in terms of modularizing the learning, added capacity to build training to serve as ongoing performance support, the ability to link training around transactions into simulated customer encounters and ease of deployment. "In the old days, if you had the time, you did a migration strategy with armies of people in a SWAT team in the field to go from region to region to enable conversion," he says. "It was a very hands on model, but not a very scalable one."

Mapping how the skills of incoming employees match an acquiring institution's needs is another way automation is being used in today's tumultuous times. David Lipscomb, vp of diversity and inclusion at Sovereign in New York, is using Web-based tools from Zapoint to benchmark the skills of staff across the enterprise, a capability he says is transferable to assessing the talent of incoming staff from future acquisitions the bank hopes to make.

"It's valuable to be able to gauge organization effectiveness. I might know who reports to whom, but I want to be able to know what the effect is going to be on the organization if I move a specific person from one position to another."

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