Project management at Exchange Bank in Santa Rosa, Calif., was a pain in the ... spreadsheet.

Its employees, like their peers at a lot of banks, were slowed by long email chains, drawn-out meetings and inconsistent practices. The laborious process also made project data difficult to call up during compliance examinations.

“We didn’t have anyone with the title of project manager," and even now "everyone [who leads a project] has a day job,” Jane Daniel, an assistant vice president at Exchange, said in describing the $2.2 billion-asset bank's longtime challenges.

So bank executives decided to invest in project management and collaboration technology that, they say, has enabled workers to operate much more efficiently — and has had the added benefit of making Exchange a more attractive place to work for millennials, many of whom expect digital work management tools.

The issues Exchange faced are common, especially among community banks that lack dedicated project management staff or mature project management processes, said Ed O’Brien, executive vice president of research and strategy for ath Power Consulting.

More than an app
“It does require a change in mindset,” Exchange Bank's Jane Daniel said in describing the California community bank's switch to more sophisticated project management. “For some employees, it is easier for them to revert to just shooting off an email.”

“It’s something many banks very much struggle with,” he said. “Especially when you have different teams that are co-located, or maybe not everyone is on the same email thread. It’s hard for everyone to have the latest version of the truth.”

Exchange's reforms took time. Daniel was named portfolio project manager in 2012, and she had to research possible workflow solutions and settled on the collaborative work platform Projectplace offered by the technology provider Planview in Austin, Tex. The bank initially implemented the software as a pilot in October 2015 with 20 users, mostly IT personnel.

Daniel described its dashboard as easy to navigate and said that it offers visual representations of tasks that need to be completed, color-coded updates on project status and helpful charts. The software's simplicity was important because some were information-technology power users familiar with project management software, and others had kept track of things on a notepad and paper.

“We needed something that would be intuitive for anyone to use, but also allowed those that wanted to to really drill down to the nitty-gritty,” Daniel said.

The number of participants has expanded to 110, more than a quarter of the bank’s employees. The results have been good so far, Daniel said: Exchange has identified aspects of about half of its projects that can be streamlined, and Daniel herself has gone from spending more than four hours per week reviewing project status reports to about 45 minutes.

Further, the modern improvements are said to have helped in recruiting and retaining top talent.

“Most of our new recruits are in the millennial age group, and when they come in they expect you to have these kinds of tools in today’s world,” Daniel said. “We recently hired someone, and her first week on the job she was asking where we have [a program] to manage projects.”

Documentation for compliance purposes is also much more streamlined, Daniel said.

The bank's lead federal regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., wanted to know "how we make decisions, and if all that is not kept in a central repository it can be hard to do," Daniel said. “Gathering data from emails and other places was challenging. But now we have everything easily accessible.”

That on-demand capability is critical, said Patrick Tickle, chief product officer at Planview.

“More than ever, smaller banks need these kind of tools not just from a productivity perspective but a regulatory and compliance perspective as well,” he said.

But no matter how good a project management tool is, it only works if all relevant parties use it, O’Brien said.

“It does require a change in mindset,” he said. “For some employees, it is easier for them to revert to just shooting off an email.”

That is a mentality Daniel set out to change, and most employees have embraced the new system, though some did so quicker than others. But even the “pen and paper” crowd has started to come around, she said.

“There were some that didn’t want to get involved at first and were reluctant,” she said. “But now they’re at least doing the basics.”

Ultimately, Daniel hopes everyone gets comfortable using the software because “it’s much easier with everyone in the same tool, and there’s one pathway we can all agree on.”

Bryan Yurcan

Bryan Yurcan

Bryan Yurcan is a senior writer with American Banker, with a focus on financial technology.