NCR Corp. is making a bid to put its mainframe legacy behind it and prepare its banking customers for the technology needs of the next millennium.
NCR has established a $10 million financial services knowledge lab at the headquarters of its financial systems group in London.
Its mission is to help the industry "learn more about the consumer banking environment, particularly as it relates to consumer behavior," said Per-Olof Loof, the group's senior vice president. The lab also could recast the image of NCR as more of a "thought leader" in banking.
"Clearly, it is an effort on our part to try to deliver more to the industry than we traditionally have," Mr. Loof said.
NCR, which did not make money under the AT&T umbrella, started out this year trying to shed some of its shortcomings with pledges to cut costs and focus its business on the retail, communications, and finance sectors.
"We realize that selling hardware boxes - in whichever shape or form they are, be they computers or ATMs or other processing equipment - will not suffice," Mr. Loof said.
The laboratory has already drawn visitors from an array of international financial and academic organizations. And NCR is in the midst of a recruiting drive on the American side of the Atlantic.
"We are having discussions with many of the major U.S. banks right now to get them involved in some of our projects," Mr. Loof said.
The lab's calendar is filling up. It has 20 seminars and workshops planned, and Mr. Loof hopes they spawn new projects.
"We are unique in the approach we are taking," he said. "It is a very 'open' facility in that the work we do there is actually intended to be shared with the industry at large.
"It's trying to put us in a position to work together with our customers and our academic partners to further our understanding of the consumer banking marketplace," he said.
Just this week, NCR launched a project with National Westminster Bank of London to study the behavior of banking consumers. Natwest will use some of NCR's analytical tools to understand the pattern of customers' activities at branches, Mr. Loof said.
Much of the lab's work is aimed at developing strategies to meet the needs of banking customers in the future. Mr. Loof characterized tomorrow's public as "less loyal"and "more demanding," with more options for how and where to do their banking.
"Loyalty is a key issue for many of these organizations," Mr. Loof said. "A major retail bank will have three or four million customers. How do you breed loyalty into three or four million people when you hardly see them?
"Marketing, branding, and loyalty are going to be key for capturing the imagination of the consumer - therefore being able to sell to them," Mr. Loof added.
Part of the solution, Mr. Loof said, is already at the banks' fingertips: data warehouses. The ability to use and learn from that information will grow in the next few years, Mr. Loof said.
Also becoming more common, he said, will be biometric identification technologies - relying on physical attributes, such as fingerprints or voice prints. "We'll see more channels used by banks to reach their customers," he said.
Although he is hesitant to use the catch phrase "cashless society," Mr. Loof does expect "a lot of different methods of not using cash or checks." Some of today's "alternative" payment systems will gain currency, he believes, and that probably points toward further advances in chip card technologies.
Commerce on the Internet and other electronic networks will take off after overcoming some growing pains.
"The problem we're having right now is kind of the 'world wide wait' syndrome on the Web. Once we have sorted that situation out, we will be able to bring more products onto the Net."
Meanwhile, back at the branch level, technologies are being developed to move the automation frontier forward, and the array of banking activities available through self-service devices will expand.
"We're going to see merchant ATMs," Mr. Loof predicted. "We're going to see us being able to deposit in a much more efficient way."