March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 10.01.05

Bank on This

Mobility may not leap to mind when you think about the financial industry, but even the most modest mobile investments can lead to big gains.
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By Eric M. Zeman




This past summer I attended a backyard barbecue at a friend’s house. The sun was shining, the pool was beckoning, burgers were hissing on the grill and a cold beer was sweating in my hand. Ah, contentment. My mind was far from work. People at the party were discussing the usual things for this area of the country: the Yankees, the Mets, how to get from Point A to Point B the quickest, the weather, the price of gas and politics. That was, until the host’s BlackBerry went off.

I hadn’t noticed it on my friend’s hip before, but there it was. It sounded its sweet little chime, indicating that new e-mail had arrived. An instant later, three more BlackBerrys announced their presence with similar alarms. The bearers of said devices all checked them immediately, unceremoniously setting aside food, drink and small children to do so. What, you might ask, was so important as to disturb the tranquility of a Saturday afternoon party?

Work. Financial news, to be precise. All four BlackBerry wearers work for the same New York City–based financial institution and a major announcement had been made that was sure to stir the markets come Monday. Loud exclamations followed: The four men huddled and spoke excitedly, while their wives griped vociferously about the intrusion into their family time.

After the initial hullabaloo died down, I was itching to ask my host about his BlackBerry and what he used it for. Turns out he uses his for the same purposes as just about everyone else who has a BlackBerry, for e-mail. But he also had an interesting application on the BlackBerry that fed him market information, statistics and BBQ-interrupting notifications.

The Industry Standard

Over the years, Mobile Enterprise has covered just about every vertical out there. Be it utilities, government, healthcare, transportation, pharmaceuticals or education, we’ve been there to reveal the ways mobile technology can increase worker productivity and enhance the bottom line.
Not wanting to leave anyone out, we thought it high time to take a look at the secretive world of the financial industry to determine how it is deploying mobile technology. Not surprisingly, many of my calls to major financial institutions went unanswered. I was, however, able to discover a few things.

One senior VP of security at an Everett, Wash.–based commercial bank, who asked not to be named, put it quite bluntly: “We do not allow any wireless. Everything is in a private frame. Our stance is that bank information will reside only on bank-owned equipment, to control the security on it.” When pressed, he admitted that upper management used BlackBerrys and laptops, but “only for e-mail and managing contacts. There is no software installed to conduct business.”

When I prodded him for an explanation, he contended that, “Because we don’t know what connections are being used, or the status of their virus protection, we simply can’t allow access to the in-house systems from the outside.” The only reason the bank allows BlackBerrys is because Research In Motion (RIM) offers secure socket layer protection for the e-mail. The laptops that are in use are “totally secured and encrypted.”

Finally, he admitted that, “There are some lines of business where [mobility] would be beneficial, in a limited way. In the business banking realm, we typically have need of a laptop where notes and spreadsheets can be used, which are difficult on a BlackBerry-type device. Even though everyone would love the flexibility, not too much of our workforce is on the road.”

My anonymous source has some good points. We all heard the horror stories over the summer about hundreds of thousands of credit card numbers being stolen. Security is a major issue. Our financial and banking data is the most sensitive—and potentially lucrative to thieves—information about us. Private citizens and businesses alike need to be assured that their information is protected and secured in the electronic equivalent of a steel vault. So does mobility really apply to the entrenched financial industry?

RIM certainly thinks so. David Heit, senior product manager of enterprise applications and a five-year veteran at RIM is, “amazed at the amount of penetration in every facet of the financial industry. It’s hard to think of a financial institution without the BlackBerry. It’s used quite heavily and is still growing in terms of deployments for organizations, following the same general pattern: being deployed by C-level execs for e-mail first and then trickling down. Just being able to stay on top of customer requests and responses is very valuable to them.”

But is e-mail the only application being used? “Once people got used to having e-mail, of course they wanted more,” says Heit. “That translated into one of the first requests we had for additional information, which came from Wall Street. A lot of finance execs were given BlackBerrys, and they have certain requirements, such as filling in call reports for their contacts. Many didn’t want to be bothered with a laptop and wanted to be able to use their BlackBerrys instead.”

When financial decisions are concerned, being armed with the most recent data is imperative. So is speed of response. RIM’s partners and developers, such as Pyxis, WolfeTech and Fidelity Information Services, helped create a number of applications to help those in the finance sector access the data they need. “People want to be able to find information on the advisor side such as stock information, financial data and up-to-the-minute stock tickers even when they’re mobile. They need to keep in touch with the marketplace,” says Heit.

He continues, “Extending an application to a mobile device is not a new idea, it goes back five years. RIM has quite a few partners focused on the finance side. Pyxis is a good example of that. Instead of focusing on just one or two pieces of information, one company wanted to do stock reports, one wanted to do reporting information. Now that it’s matured, people are starting to package solutions with all the typical things they need, such as CRM applications and portfolio managers. As the industry is evolving that way, more products are available with additional applications. The general trend is that offerings are becoming more sophisticated. Bloomberg and Reuters feeds can all be accomplished on the BlackBerry now. There’s quite a bit of capability packed on that little device.”

Over time, the applications have become more obvious and it’s a matter of discovering the ROI when you interact with your enterprise. Not having to rely on a desktop or laptop to do it frees up people to be where the action is. But the enterprise needs to know what will translate well for a small screen. Obviously spreadsheets and diagrams are out of the question. Realizing what content workers really need to have, what they truly need to interact with on a daily basis, is the tricky part.

Securing the Transaction

If there’s one thing that September 11, 2001, taught everyone, it’s that disaster planning and recovery are essential. The Wall Street markets were closed for almost an entire week as the industry reeled and regrouped from the attacks. They’ve since taken measures to protect themselves against such concentrated losses.

IT managers at large financial firms have discovered that remote administration from the device directly can be a boon. It can translate to having fewer people on call over the weekends. Re-setting user accounts can be accomplished from the handheld. “People need to have procedural and contact information to know what to do, who to contact in case of an emergency,” notes Heit. “There’s a range of applications, stemming from the obvious CRM systems, contacts and e-mail, and people who used to have to be on call or drive in at a moment’s notice have a little bit more flexibility with the freedom granted by mobility.”

Speaking of being contacted at a moment’s notice, my host at that summer party was able to get back to the business of grilling brauts and dogs after the interruption. “It’s a bit of a lifestyle switch to have that access,” admits Heit. “The industry is driven by breaking news and interesting bits of information, even if it comes up on the weekend. What happens on Saturday might cause a trend on Monday. People like to stay up to date. From a lifestyle perspective, you have to balance it versus home life.”•
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