Our research, called The Focus Quotient, indicates that 2003 will be a strong year for the adoption of e-commerce in the life and pensions market.
This study of key providers forecasts that as much as 60 per cent of new business could be processed electronically by the end of the year. The rash of new regulations and draft legislation such as the Government's Pensions Green Paper will put pressure on providers to cut costs, reduce margins and make charges more transparent.
Providers are seeing the importance of managing their costs downward and are deploying technology accordingly. IFA firms are seeing technology as increasingly important to be able to access funds so they can offer their registered individuals the technology they need to help them cut admin costs, source product information more rapidly and have greater control over their customer base.
The proposed changes in CP121 and 166 make it allowable for providers to take bigger stakes in IFA firms. These deals should provide IFA firms with the necessary funds for the first time.
Terms of engagement
Against this backdrop, Focus has a few basic rules of engagement for IFA firms courting technology partners this year.
First, ensure there is a cultural compatibility with your firm. If you have differing working practices and objectives, the relationship may be under strain before you even begin.
Second, check that your would-be partner has done similar sort of work for other companies and make sure that those companies were happy with the service they got.
Third, it is important to recognise that taking on an outside supplier is not like running an in-house IT project team. Ensure that the resources needed are ringfenced by the IT provider for the term of the contract.
Contractors are, by definition, contracted to do a specific job, no more, no less. It will be important to agree working practices before starting, such as how many of them will be on site and how many will work remotely. Flexibility can often be compromised if you hire an outside IT partner, so agreeing the ground rules is important before going forward.
Focus tends to work with firms which have a completed or near completed business case for the proposed IT project.
The business case should provide the high-level backing and funding that is really needed for any serious e-commerce project. It also means that the thinking has been done about what the company is trying to achieve through implementation of a new system.
It will then be important to work with your technology partner to examine the project effectively. Does the job involve large-scale back-office integration and multi-sales channel implementation or does it demand a point solution which can be integrated out of the box?
The next aspect to look at is chunking of the project – drawing up an implementation plan which builds in phases and defines milestones. This may be done by determining that a system will be rolled out to specific groups of people at specific times for example.
Milestones may also assert targets for the percentage of new business that must be handled electronically, for example. These targets may even equate to return on investment targets. Increasingly return on investment is being expected within 12 months of project completion. It is also important to determine how much of the project is actually definable before it starts.
Companies may need guidance from their technology partner on this point. The amount of definition at the beginning will determine the approach to building the applications themselves. It should also determine the payment terms of any contract.
For example a rapid application development (RAD) approach will mean more time spent in the development phase and in prototyping the system, but less in initial definition. But if you are agreeing a fixed-price contract, too much prototyping might push the project beyond the resources allocated to it, triggering special rates that push the project beyond initial budget as well as schedule.
Finally, it will be important to define methods of communication. When will application developers present to business heads? Who will report progress to whom, by when? Good communication is critical to keeping any project on track. It also ensures the continued backing from on high.
Designing the system itself is often a two-stage process. The IFA firm might provide a high-level design while the supplier goes away and draws up a detailed design with specifications.
Check at this stage what type of tools the provider is likely to deploy in the solution. Is your partner just about to build a legacy application, so that ongoing maintenance and inevitable changes to the system will mean regularly drafting that provider back in?
Ideally, your partner should be able to deploy the latest tools, which are much more intuitive so that with some training, business as well as IT users themselves can make future changes to the system. Up to 40 per cent of the total time spent on an e-commerce project may be spent in these first two phases.
When examining the development itself, it is important to look at how much of the solution can be based on existing tools and how much will have to be built from scratch. Good providers should have libraries of tools ready for reuse. Focus has its goal: technology family of sales automation tools for example.
It will also be important to determine how many channels you are trying to push e-commerce over – via provider extranets, IFA portals and/or call centres, for example. Some of the better tools will be deployable across numerous channels with only minor adjustments.
It will also be important to build using open standards as far as possible. It is well worth familiarising yourself with the standards developed by industry body Origo for doing business electronically. These standards have been agreed after lengthy discussion between key providers, distributors and technology companies.
Open standards basically mean that it is easier to send information and ensure that it is viewable and processable at the other end, regardless of the recipients' systems.
During this phase, it is critical that not too many modifications are made. Modifications, which will not have been built into the project definition, will naturally push projects off course. It should be possible to limit the development phase to as little as four weeks. It is rarely longer than 200 days today.
It is normal practice today to test operational effectiveness on a small control group of users. If the project includes multi channel implementation, it is a good idea to roll out across one channel, run transactions through it for a short time and then push it to the next channel.
It will also be important to test acceptance by the user base, deploying additional training if needed. There will probably be bugs to fix.
Finally, the technology provider should be able to hand over user manuals and offer training to the in-house IT team so they can take over maintenance of the system. In some cases it may be necessary to agree rapid reaction support for more complex changes or upgrades. A support contract may be agreed if this sort of support is likely to be of value.
I leave you with some basic tenets for e-commerce project success:
Tight control and discipline are essentials for success of your e-commerce projects.
Keep lines of communication open throughout project
Agree terms of engagement before you start.
Set return on investment targets and chunk the project to ensure agreed milestones are being met and communicated internally.
Recognise that these projects are routes to growth for your company – shout loud about initial successes to ensure that your board continues to support the project throughout its life.