Computerlink: A new industrial revolution - Lynne Curry asks if the financial world should invest in glittering technology or human brilliance to realise the full potential of IT

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The Independent Online
Denby Rowland has a dog's dinner of a professional past (in fact, it includes a spell in dog biscuits). He was just the sort of operator a major factoring house was looking for.

Tracked down at Honda, where he was working in information technology, he was lured away by an IT executive search agency, Craig Associates, at the behest of Griffin Factors. He is now head of systems development at Griffin, part of Midland Bank, where his role is to uplift the contribution of IT to its smooth, efficient and profitable running.

With his switchback career in business, IT and manufacturing, Mr Rowland typifies the multi-experienced and multi-competent individual so much in demand in the financial arena; his company has taken to heart the argument that IT should be at the fore of its strategy planning.

But he will be advancing Griffin's electronic progress on a mid- 1970s mainframe system which there are currently no plans to change. 'Clearly there's a lot you can do with creativity and ingenuity,' Mr Rowland says. Using electronic data interchange (EDI) some of Griffin's 2,000 clients can already press a button and notify a transaction. All have on-line access to the mainframe in the headquarters at Worthing, Sussex.

'Griffin wants to be seen right up there in terms of what we offer to our clients in the way of service, and IT plays a big part of that,' Mr Rowland says. 'This is an area where you need a lot of pragmatism. You have to do the best with the technology you have, but always be on the lookout for the technological leap you have to make.'

While the large and rich will not hesitate to climb on to the bandwagon of technological advance, smaller players (Griffin has 300 staff) do not have the funds for technical change and have to wait for innovations to have a proven advantage before they invest.

They exist, however, in an atmosphere which one IT recruiter describes as 'manic' and a headhunter declares riddled with hype. Huge investments in the latest technology have not been without their casualties, notably the London Ambulance Service. How much should companies spend, and on what? Should it go on glittering technology or human brilliance?

In either event, technological change does not necessarily bring universal benefits. National Westminster announced last Wednesday that its payroll will be cut by another 4,000 as a result of electronic banking.

Companies are constantly reminded, however, that they have to go forward to survive. Those involved in banking and finance, as recruiters or advisers, are distinguished from each other only by their varying degrees of enthusiasm for the application of IT.

Rob Baldock, a partner who specialises in financial services for Andersen Consulting, urges businesses to 'take hold of leading-edge technology' and says IT has led to a new industrial revolution. 'Why is it people always say, 'the next one will be better so let's wait for that'?

'With the competitive situation we're in today, we have to have a way of leapfrogging the competition rather than following suit.'

Andersen's advanced-practices team has built a handful of prototype systems which, says Mr Baldock, would have had him laughed out of court if he had described them a year ago. Familiar with multimedia, touring supermarket aisles on video screen and voice-activated teaching programmes, he is intolerant of those who hang back. 'There is ignorance. There is inertia. There is fear of getting caught out. There is fear of immediate obsolescence. But mostly there is just fear and complacency,' he says.

There is already technology 'which, in the right hands, will blow entire industries apart', he says . 'How, for example, would the clearing banks respond to a telecommunications company using its network to move into personal electronic banking? Or what happens to conventional retailers when, as will happen soon in the US, a 'virtual' shopping mall opens?'

Companies and institutions keen to fend off the threat of losing out through becoming technologically backward have responded by strengthening their IT departments with well-paid IT 'hybrids', recruited for dual expertise in IT and their particular business.

David Holloway, manager of FSS Computing, says merchant banks have grasped the initiative to 'add value to the bottom line . . . (they) are establishing crack teams of systems/business analysts to realise the full potential of technology. The recommendations made by these analysts are no longer kicked into touch by the board without very careful consideration.

'This is due to the competitive nature of their business, in that the board is constantly seeking competitive advantage to maintain the position within the market place. Advanced technology is now recognised as an efficient tool for maintaining and advancing a company's competitive position.'

John Miskelly, of JM Management Services, agrees that institutions should import new technology, but acknowledges the difficulty in keeping up with advances.

Colin Jones, City consultant of Harrison Willis, says IT has illuminated the difficult area of risk management. He can see it being used in the private sector, possibly to expand the fixed-income derivative market into mortgage equity.

Max Kantelia, a partner in Millar Associates, says the investment banks feel confident in their own ability to employ and exploit technology through in-house expertise.

'You do need to use IT as part of your strategy plan but it doesn't necessarily, in my view, have to be the all-singing, all-dancing, latest technological innovation. We're working for some firms at the moment for whom we have had IT directors do exactly this sort of thing but using old technology. It's not the type of technology, it's what you do with it that counts. If it's being said that you have to be using certain types of technology and unless you're using the sexiest technology you don't stand a chance, that's not true. I'd say innovative, creative use of IT directors is the answer.'

Even in the midst of consensus there is the voice of doubt. While IT professionals with business or financial expertise are undeniably in demand, says one recruiter, the zeal with which they are being snapped up is almost reminiscent of the Eighties.

'My private opinion is that people are throwing money at this, but one day the supply will dry up and the training will have to start,' he says.

'There was a massive reaction in the same sector in the Eighties; it was out of control. They were running out of the skills that they required at the time, which would have been computer programming skills, then getting smart, sharp graduates and training them.

'When the recession came, all these people were wiped out and left with half a skill set. It won't be as bad this time because people have wised up and take the head count much more seriously, but salaries are inflated compared with industry - the same job would bring in about pounds 7,000 a year less (in industry), although it wouldn't have the pressure, of course.

'The world they work in is manic, but exciting. Banking and financial services is a short-term gig for technological people. It's a high pressure job with good money but I get people standing on our doorstep saying, 'get me out, get me a nice job with a company'.'

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