Bacs must get users involved

The UK payment industry is an essential part of our national infrastructure. In theory, banks and payment organisations should...

The UK payment industry is an essential part of our national infrastructure. In theory, banks and payment organisations should work together to harness the latest technology in areas of common interest. New and useful services can then be bought to market quickly, leading to increased productivity.

In practice, however, this has not happened. Attempts by the banks and payment industry associations to develop various industry-wide payment systems, for instance in the area of bill payment, have either been abandoned or mothballed.

Now, there are signs that this may be about to change. Bacs, the UK bank clearing house, looks likely to press ahead with plans for a radical restructuring.

Under the plans, first revealed by Computer Weekly about a year ago, Bacs would split into two separate companies. An infrastructure company would be responsible for running Bacs' IT systems and developing new technology. The second company, run by Bacs members - the banks and building societies - would be responsible for running its direct debit and credit services.

Under this revamped Bacs, non-banks - for instance software suppliers - would be allowed to join the elite clearing club and develop new services and technology in partnership with the banks and Bacs' IT department.

Although the legalities of the proposed split have yet to be agreed, it could provide the shot in the arm the payment industry needs by allowing a wider mix of companies to develop new services and technology. But while analysts have broadly welcomed discussions, some have also sounded a note of caution.

Their concern is that there will be a "disconnection" between the technologies and services the banks want and what the IT infrastructure company wants or is capable of delivering. Without constant communication between the two companies and tightly agreed objectives, Bacs' well-intentioned moves to revamp the payments industry will be a waste of time.

The danger of a disconnection between what IT departments provide and what their end-users want is underlined by a story told in this week's issue by Colin Cobain, UK IT director at Tesco.

To help him understand better the needs of his end-users, Cobain recently spent time as part of a company-wide "back to the floor" initiative that saw him serving on the delicatessen counter and stocking shelves in a Tesco store in Devon. After a session spent manning the tills, Cobain was forced to conclude that a project his team was developing to facilitate the weighing and charging of fresh goods simply was not addressing a real need among users. The project was tweaked accordingly.

The example is a timely reminder that you can construct the most perfectly conceived, architecturally beautiful IT application in the world, but unless end-users have been involved from the outset, it is unlikely that they will welcome it or even use it. Similarly, lines of business can conjure up the most extravagant IT solutions, but unless their IT departments are able, or can afford, to deliver them, they are wasting their time.

All parties involved in the changes at Bacs would do well to bear Cobain's cautionary tale in mind over the coming weeks.

Read more on Data centre hardware