Financial services wary on unified communications

Financial organisations are slowly embracing the notion of unified communications, but significant organisational hurdles remain

Financial organisations are slowly embracing the notion of unified communications, but significant organisational hurdles remain before they can begin fully bringing together varying communication platforms, current practitioners warn.

During a panel discussion at the Future of Banking and Financial Services Conference in Sydney, IT managers from a range of financial institutions said that the rhetoric of unified communications -- which promises to unite all communications functions, including e-mail, voice and instant messaging, on a single, IP-based platform -- still lags somewhat behind the reality.

"The main issue is that it remains a concept at the moment," said Frost and Sullivan consulting director ANZ, Andrew Milroy.

It's an attitude which is reflected in a fairly unadventurous approach to adoption in the sector. "At present the main tools are the fairly predictable ones: e-mail, voice and instant messaging," said Milroy. "We've found awareness of unified communications incredibly low amongst users in Australia."

Institutions which have embraced the concept have concentrated initially on smaller projects.

"Most of the areas unified communications have been used are in more point-centric applications," said GE Money's vice president, CRM, Philip Wickenden.

To get real benefits from unified communications, however, companies have to spend time fixing their basic infrastructure, eliminating duplication and developing a single standardised platform, before rolling out applications.

"The root of all these evils is there's so many different systems involved," said Suncorp general manager of business technology infrastructure Paul Cameron.

"We went on a transformation program a couple of years ago," Cameron said. "To do this kind of stuff you need to upgrade the basic infrastructure. That left us able to join all the pieces of the puzzle."

"What we're currently doing is working through all our origination processes, trying to develop a stronger service-oriented architecture," GE Money's Wickenden similarly noted.

None of this comes cheaply. "It's a very substantial cost to rollout IP telephony and to take advantage of it," said St George group head of architecture, Greg Booker.

This needn't necessarily pose a problem, however. "In banking, cost is traditionally not as big an inhibitor as it is in other industry sectors," Frost and Sullivan's Milroy said, noting that projects are generally given a reasonable period to show a return on investment.

Making the business case
Even with an enterprise-wide plan, such projects can be influenced by earlier pilots. When St George rolled out SMS notification of balances in 2001, the company was "amazed at the uptake we saw", said Booker.

"One of the key things we're doing at the moment is leveraging what we've done from an SOA perspective and building a unified platform for customer notification," he said. That system will make the same data available to front-line staff, call centre workers, and individual customers applications such as ATMs and online banking.

Unified systems need not necessarily involve brand-new technology. Suncorp has around 90 dedicated videoconferencing connections, which have seen significant uptake, according to the company. That success has led to further expansion. "We're about to light up desktop-to-corporate video conferencing," Suncorp's Cameron said.

Unlike some unified communications projects, the process was easy to justify in business terms. "We're in a merger process at the moment, and we don't want people on planes all the time," Cameron said. "We've still got to run the business."

User reactions have varied widely. "Our business bank is keen on using the integrated communications tools because they're so dispersed around the country," Cameron said.

Conversely, staff in the bank's retail operations were initially more impressed that their ageing systems had been replaced to make unified applications possible, and only later began realising the extra business potential it offered.

Talk to the customers?
Many projects in this sphere tend to concentrate on business internal communication initially, but the widespread use of technologies such as instant messaging by the general population have also increased pressures to deploy unified communications systems for customer contact.

Such an approach is lucrative, but potentially risky. "We could do more to damage the customer experience in the short term if we don't think very carefully about how to expand that," GE Money's Wickenden said.

"If you start communicating with customers across the wrong channels, that is a way to really drive down customer satisfaction," St George's Brooker said.

A future challenge will be how to expand such services outside the company firewall. "The concept of the virtual enterprise is becoming very real," said panel moderator James Haensly, vice president strategy and unified communications at Avaya.

Few participants professed themselves ready to face that challenge yet. The Internet may serve as a useful conduit for communications to individuals, but it doesn't measure up for enterprise needs, Suncorp's Cameron said.

"You can't do this overnight; you need a good investment program," he said. "We need clever ways to invest in this technology and a very strong roadmap."