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Christmas is the traditional time to put aside differences and offer goodwill to all men. It is also a time for looking forward, so I want to look at how we could change our industry to make it a better place for providers, advisers and consumers.

It never ceases to amaze me how little advisers or providers really understand about the job that each other does. This industry works around life offices which are primarily focused on new business and IFAs who generally believe providing quality service to customers who have already bought investments is more important.

Sadly, 2001 has been another year when technology promised so much and delivered less. It is time for drastic action to change the agenda. Technology must be something that helps advisers and providers although it will do so in different ways.

The industry electronic new business project has been an abject failure. I can understand why IFAs do not want to use the current process. It is cumbersome and makes the process of submitting new business take far longer but this is not something that cannot be changed.

I would like to see effort to modify the process so it becomes more adviser-friendly. It should be recognised that receiving validated, error free new business can greatly reduce life offices&#39 costs and is something that is in everyone&#39s interests.

If providers were to try to make the process more IFA-friendly, I believe every adviser should then try to use it because it will drive costs down. But providers should recognise the biggest thing they can do with technology is to provide electronic valuation information in ways that can put such information where it is of most value – in the advisers&#39 back-office systems.

A handful of life offices are making important progress here. Scottish Life and Prudential both deserve major credit for their efforts in this respect and so does 1st Software. If life offices made progress here it would be reasonable to expect IFAs to make a major effort to deliver as much new business as possible electronically.

While life office extranets do deliver some value in making information available online which normally would have to be accessed by more traditional and time-consuming means, they just really shift costs from providers to IFAs. It is the IFA who has to use the site, pay for the phone call to access the information and key in the valuation request only to end up with information on screen that they can at best print and then have to re-key into their own back-office systems.

There are things which life offices could do to make using extranets a far more worthwhile experience for IFAs. At the top of the list would have to be a common look feel and navigation to non-competitive areas of sites.

Why is it that every life office&#39s site navigates in different ways? This creates an awesome training overhead for advisers and is probably the biggest single reason why, with the notable exception of Skandia and one or two others, life offices are seeing negligible use of their extranets and a lack of return on their investment. The way that information is delivered on existing contracts should not be a competitive issue.

But it is not all doom and gloom on the technology horizon. An increasing number of fund managers and particularly fund supermarkets are making real progress in delivering valuation information straight into advisers&#39 back-office systems.

Why is it these companies spend so much more time focusing on what helps IFAs and do not have a problem treating anything that helps the IFA as a priority? Life offices have much to learn.

I find such the approach of such organisations refreshing and, based on what I am seeing, I would expect 2002 to be the year when fund management groups overtake life offices in use of e-commerce and the consequent value they deliver to the IFA market.

There is so much that technology can do to help our industry but this will only happen when life offices and IFAs start to work together to understand each others&#39 problems. At a time when Ron Sandler is looking at our industry to see if there are other ways for to serve consumers, what better time to take a fresh approach to the way technology is managed?

If we could create a mutually supportive approach to the use of technology, we could achieve so much. To do so will not be easy but it could be valuable. We need to start articulating what we need and why we need it. It is time to start being truly open with each other about what are the things that make a difference to how we run our businesses.

All too often, I see situations where providers or advi-sers will say what they want but do not explain to the counter-party why in a manner that enables their partners to really understand their thinking. Is it any wonder that we have not moved forward as quickly as we could do?

Next year could, and I believe should, be the year of co-operation when it comes to the use of technology why do I have a nagging feeling that it won&#39t be?

Ian McKenna is a consultant and director of the Financial Technology Research Centre, which works for a wide range of industry organisations, life offices and technology companies, including Microsoft, Assuresoft and The Exchange. He can be contacted by email at Tel: 020 7935 2599


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