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The perfect partner

Selection of a strong technology partner is likely to be a critical component in the success of any process automation project.

Some of the bigger firms will inevitably opt for the safety of a bigger IT consultant or systems integrator such as Cap Gemini Ernst & Young or a major software provider such as Oracle.

Nobody ever gets fired for hiring firms like these to help enable e-business or so the story goes. But if the work is going to be outsourced, it will be critical to make sure that the chosen technology partner is up to the job.

Once you have identified that you need a technology provider to enable you to do business electronically, how do you plan to roll out the e-business project? It is important not to try to do too much too quickly. A phased approach is the best way forward.

Determine which processes you would first like to make electronic. Which will offer the “proof of concept” and illustrate the business benefits of going electronic in a matter of months rather than years?

For example, you may choose to automate only a highvolume product such as term insurance from a control group of advisers to one or two product providers which have already built and deployed product applications electronically. If sufficient volumes can be pushed through electronically and quantifiable efficiencies extracted from that, it could form the basis of a pitch to the board to extend the project.

This sort of phased roll-out should be discussed with your technology partner. It should be possible to build electronic applications and deploy them across one sales channel such as an extranet in as little as 30 days. Is your technology provider capable of this sort of rapid deployment and, if not, why not? Can what has been achieved across one sales channel be transferred to another channel relatively quickly and easily?

One key aspect of this rapid deployment is use of a component-based approach. Ideally, the chosen technology partner will be able to access a pre-built library of XML-based components which can be used as the basis for building and deploying a complex array of new business processes.

IFA e-project managers will also need to probe how scalable the offered solution is. Can it cope with handling hundreds of electronic documents every hour? How effectively can it be routed through to the providers? How long will it take to reach the back-office systems of the provider, gain confirmation and pass this back to the IFA?

For the real benefits of e-business to be realised, quotation and decision in principle processes (for mortgages) will need to be responded to within minutes online via the internet, otherwise user IFAs will resist doing away with the paper-based processes.

Some IFAs are likely to come unstuck if they select a technology provider that does not have a clear idea of the mechanics of how business is done in the regulated world of financial services. It is important to look for a technology provider that fully understands these processes.

A process mapping exercise will help but technology solutions providers must have real understanding of the business processes which require automation or it will be difficult to scope the project quickly and correctly.

Ask questions which will probe the degree of knowledge and expect to get answers which illustrate a thorough knowledge about the standard business processes you are likely to be using.

Firms producing baffling technology gobbledegook are best avoided. Many bigger software and services businesses are partnering with specialist financial software providers to gain this sort of knowledge, expertise and access to front-end applications.

Another way to probe dom-ain knowledge is by prompting discussion about CP121, CP146, Catmarked products or the Sandler review to name a few. Perhaps ask the provider to tailor its initial presentation to provide a solution which specifically addresses the implications of some of these industry developments.

The solutions that are offered will need to have an “intelligent layer” built into them. XML (short for extensible mark-up language) offers this intelligence. Basically, what XML offers is the facility to build data fields, with instructions on what those data fields should achieve attached to each field.

This essentially enables electronic documents to be built not as static documents but as intelligent data-capture tools which can be re-used in several different sales channels but still retain their ability to collect and validate the data being collected.

It should also be possible to adapt the data collection processes should there be a need to offer multi-currency products. Could the chosen system handle multiple languages if it is necessary to distribute the product abroad?

It is not inconceivable that UK-based distributor firms will be offering multicurrency payment on products which can be bought by people all over Europe.

Another challenge to consider is that IFA distributor firms will need to communicate with multiple providers with different networking infrastructures. Integration will be critical. Effective middleware, enterprise application integration and business intelligence software may well be critical pieces of the jigsaw. It may well be necessary to offer these electronic processes via multiple channels. IFAs may choose to use a range of IFA portals or go through the distributor firm&#39s extranet.

Without building systems which are capable of easy transferral into new channels, a great deal of money is likely to be wasted creating completely new systems which do not talk to existing systems.

A key objective should be to avoid creating “legacy” systems which do not offer the flexibility that component-based systems offer.

It is always difficult to summarise all the areas that e-project managers will need to consider when selecting a technology partner but this should help them to draw up the selection criteria and make the process a little more scientific.

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