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Flying the standard

Few in the industry will not benefit from Skandia&#39s decision to become a


full Origo sponsor, putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to


supporting e-commerce in the IFA community.


Probably the only losers will be the small group of life offices which


continue to fail to contribute their fair share of the costs of Origo&#39s


work in developing and maintaining the standards necessary to maximise


industry savings via e-commerce.


Origo sponsorship, I feel, can be taken as a clear indicator of any life


office&#39s intention to support the IFA community or otherwise. Although the


number of sponsors has fallen over the last few years, this has been as a


result of consolidation within the market as life offices merge or take


each other over.


The only exception to this was Britannia Life, where its withdrawal as an


Origo sponsor in fact gave an early indication of its exit from the IFA


sector less than a year later.


In the last few months, Origo has been approached by players in both the


managed funds and mortgage industry. These players have recognised the


benefits that have been achieved in the life and pensions sector by the


existence of standards that will enable product providers to support a wide


range of technology service providers in a streamlined fashion.


The benefits of common data standards can be easily seen from the way in


which life offices are now able to support multiple emerging information


portals for IFAs, such as the new services from Misys, AssureWeb and


Synaptic Systems. Even with standards in place, a number of insurers are


finding it a challenge to allocate the necessary resources to support the


parallel development of each of these services.


By comparison, one of the most common complaints that I hear from lenders


is that, with the number of mortgage service providers, infomediaries and


electronic brokers wanting to deal with them on-line, the lack of any


common standards means that each individual business partnership requires


specific systems development.


I have long believed it is essential that a single set of standards should


be developed to meet the needs of all organisations that distribute


financial products through IFAs. Failure to do this will, at best, lead to


a situation where IFAs and consumers are faced with increased costs because


it is not easy to exchange data between different systems on the adviser&#39s


desktop.


In a worst-case scenario, multiple standards will force advisers to re-key


information they have already entered into other systems. In practice, many


will choose not to use the e-commerce tools offered and stick with


paper-based systems – clearly a retrograde step.


Against this background, it is hardly surprising that several of the


biggest lenders are now supporting Origo fulfilling a standards&#39 role in


their market.


However, some organisations have questioned if a body sponsored by members


of the life insurance industry can really act as an impartial provider of


standards for a wider marketplace. Such comments, however, ignore two key


facts.


First, IFAs act as distributors across a wide range of product providers.


This means it is only by using systems which operate to common data


standards that they can take best advantage of e-commerce in automating


their systems and enhance the services they offer their clients.


Even if product providers do not want to help IFAs to improve client


service, they should recognise that the days when life offices provided


life insurance and pensions, fund managers opera- ted unit trust and


similar investments and building societies provided mortgages are well and


truly over.


The modern financial service company is an integrated organisation


offering a wide range of products. The two biggest mortgage lenders,


Halifax and Abbey National, each own Origo sponsors, Clerical Medical and


Scottish Mutual respectively, M&G is now part of Prudential and Standard


Life has become a serious force in the mortgage industry.


The value of what has been created for the UK life and pension market


should not be understated.


Only a couple of years ago, US organisations were looking to enter the UK


market on the basis that they had a more suitable set of operating


standards.


The US is always held up as being ahead of the rest of the world in the


development of e-commerce but in this area it is not.


I am aware of several US life offices and technology providers expressing


a keen interest in the work which is going on at Origo.


No other initiative in the world has established a similar set of


functional XML standards for the trading of life and pensions over the


internet.


The current standards are now to be extended within just a couple of


months to include both the mortgage and managed funds industry. These


should all be delivered by the end of spring.


The existence of such a suite of fully functional data standards presents


a massive opportunity for UK Financial Services plc to become a major


exporter of electronic financial services.


The UK already has a clear lead in e-commerce relative to our European


Union partners. The tools are now being put in place that can make the UK


the most effective place to base European personal finance e-commerce – an


opportunity that should be grasped with both hands.


The existing sponsors are making it clear that the door is open for


additional sponsors, such as Skandia, which is far from a typical life


office, to join. By allowing Origo to become involved with areas outside


their traditional areas of coverage, the existing sponsors are putting the


overall needs of UK Financial Services plc in advance of their own and


showing true leadership. It is to their credit that this is being done


without up front conditions over the long-term funding of the organisation.


The existing sponsors have taken a bold and constructive approach in


admitting more sponsors and allowing the development of standards to


support a wider range of business areas. The onus must now be upon


non-sponsors, including fund management groups and mortgage lenders, to


take advantage of the opportunity to join as full sponsors.

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