When setting out to identify the best community bank IT initiatives this year, we didn't expect to top our list with a CTO who relies as heavily on outsourcing as Thad Hutcheson does. But take a look at the range of projects undertaken by the $150 million-asset T Bank, and you'll see an exemplar of what our top 10 list is about: The kind of smart decision-making and solid execution that give banks with limited resources the flexibility they need to stay competitive.

As executive editor John Adams wrote this month, the Dallas-based T Bank has a one-man IT shop: chief technology officer Hutcheson. Simply supporting all the technology and keeping the lights on was a full-time job and much-needed upgrades and innovations were hard to achieve. By farming out many daily IT chores to Computer Services Inc., Hutcheson is able to lift his head up from the minutiae and think about the bigger picture. "I was finding myself having to be an IT guy when I'd rather be designing new technology and helping us manage additional risk," he says.

Calls like this are what Dante DeWitt, chief information officer of BMO-Harris, calls "core versus context." "Things that are context only affect your stock price in a negative way, and core things can affect it in a positive or negative way," he said in a recent conversation about outsourcing in general.

"Something that's core is really strategic. It might, for instance, be a key business differentiator. Things that are context are basic, like the locks on your doors," DeWitt says. "The things that over time you outsource or have others do for you are those where there's no value-add to doing it yourself. If you can get a data center as secure and redundant in terms of reliability and power and cooling as anybody else's, why would you invest in your own, unless it would save you a lot of money?"

Although Harris Bank doesn't do a lot of outsourcing today, because of its mergers with BMO and M&I, making the bank the 16th largest in the U.S., it will consider outsourcing in the future, DeWitt says.

Other community banks on our Top 10 list made dramatic technology changes in other ways. East Carolina Bank in Engelhard, N.C., conducted a sweeping series of upgrades, including replacing old Sharp teller calculators with a 21st century teller system. (The employees destroyed the old machines with sledgehammers in an amusing YouTube video similar to the printer-bashing scene in the movie Office Space: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2K13Bke6ug.)

Peter Setaro at First National Bank of the Gulf Coast has made an absolute commitment to paperlessness — you won't find any cabinets, file drawers or three-ring binders in the bank.

At Apollo Bank in Miami, new platforms have enabled the $500 million-asset bank to provide real-time transaction information via core, online and mobile banking platforms.

"All of these remote capabilities are critical to our plan," says Chief Executive Richard Dailey. "Tech is the great equalizer between a community bank and large national banks."

Some of the banks on this year's list wrote to us about their top IT projects, others were nominated by vendors, and still others we knew of through our work in the field. All demonstrated a thoughtful approach to technology, despite modest budgets.