Euro planning and politics

Jane Oliver: The mixed message coming from the first-wave experience of the euro is not helping to clarify the UK project.

Let's talk about the euro. It keeps surfacing every now and again, gives a few gurgles and then disappears back under the surface of the murky governmental water, doubtless looking to meet the five economic tests, elusive little beasts that they are.

Currently the government seems so totally obsessed with achieving its third term in power that it does not seem to care what else is going on. But it is obviously worried that the thorny issue of the euro could put the mockers on that dream. The only firm euro message that appears to be filtering out from Number 10 is roughly along the lines of: "In case we do go with the euro, can you be ready?" Which, if you've any idea about the business implications of the euro, is a ridiculous stance to take.

Having had plenty of conversations with industry heads about doing an IT "impact analysis" in order to prepare for the euro project to kick in, I believe we are now a little further down the road; not much, but a little. So what happens next?

To find out I recently wandered down to the London Stock Exchange, where members of the banking and insurance community were attending a euro seminar. Speaking on behalf of the Association of Payment Clearing Services (APACS), which is the industry body for UK banks and building societies for non-competitive areas of money transfer, was director of corporate communications Sandra Quinn.

Quinn has been pivotal in developing a UK Banking Industry "Euro Blueprint" outline plan. This includes a review of the existing timescales, key messages for government and a framework for industry mobilisation. A document that started life simply as an internal banking document, the Blueprint is now much more than that. It's currently running at roughly 150 pages -- and that's without many of the technical details for point of sale currency conversions and how to deal with ATMs, for instance.

It appears that the finance sector is working on the assumption that the five economic tests will be met and that the UK will be going ahead with the euro; it's the timetable that's the issue. Brian Meigh of insurance company Winchester White was philosophical and remarked of the project: "How do you move forward on a project when you don't know the start date, the end date or how long it will take?" Quinn chipped in that "our timetable and the government's timetables look very similar," but complained, "the banking sector will be blamed if it goes wrong."

One factor that was close to the hearts of the attendees at the Stock Exchange was the price. How much is this going to cost? In a typically British way, we are obsessed with the facts and figures of these sorts of projects -- and as the majority of Europe has already done this, many were hoping to get some first-hand facts and figures from our European cousins. But Meigh noted that there was a mixed message coming out of the first-wave. The mainland Europeans seemed to take the minimum effort approach, which worked pretty well but didn't give much of a business or technology gain and little idea of the costs.

Peter Senior of TFS Associates talked about the costs and reckoned that whatever number you come out with it is going to be unpalatable -- he quipped: "When the chief executive asks what he'll get for his money and the answer is 'you get to stay in business', it doesn't really cut it." Y2K was a technology problem that impacted business; this is a business problem that will impact technology, Senior said. "If you leave it to IT they'll take it and do the simplest thing and you won't like it," he continued. "Y2K was IT-led so nothing changed, the euro is business-led so everything will be changed."

The chair of the meeting was Patrick O'Beirne, author of "Managing the euro in Information Systems" (among many other things), and he tried to give a view of the breadth and depth of the project; new money is difficult to adjust to and this applies to everybody from the checkout operator to the chief executive. His potted advice was: start early, do planning, no big bang approach, phase the conversion where possible, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Danny Stern of Sapiens has personally led more than 20 euro projects so has a wealth of experience and is very pragmatic in his approach. Stern encouraged us to believe that "the project is not as complicated as you may think. The UK IT project for euro conversion is not a difficult project it is just big."

It may well not be complicated, but the sheer enormity of it is daunting. And although we don't have the Y2K-style prophets of doom telling us planes will plummet to earth and our washing machines will boil wash our favourite silk pashmina, I reckon when the euro project is done you will likely find a few (badly managed) project leaders who will be praying for a plane to fall on them.

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