Findings from a survey of more than 500 financial and treasury professionals put a hopeful spin on an issue that has pricked at financial institutions for years.
Corporations will not significantly reduce their reliance on checks in the short term, concluded the Association for Financial Professionals Inc., sounding a familiar refrain. On the positive side, it noted that electronic payments are on the rise and that barriers to their use are gradually breaking down.
"Checks are not going to go away any time soon, but the pace of adoption of electronic payments is going to pick up," said Arlene Chapman, vice president of government relations and technical services for the Bethesda, Md., organization.
Almost half the survey respondents said their organizations will not convert the majority of their payments from checks to electronic transmissions within the next three years. The chief impediment is lack of integration between their electronic payment and accounting systems - the same one singled out in the group's 1998 survey.
"Gaps in the electronic flow of remittance information, whether internally between systems or externally between payer and payee, are the most important barriers to increased use of electronic payments," the survey report says.
Only about one-third of survey respondents reported that their electronic payment and accounting systems are integrated; most of these organizations have revenues exceeding $5 billion.
"It's not just the payment itself, but information about the payment," Ms. Chapman said. "If you don't have information about the payment, you can't apply it. Only when you have payments and payment information will you have a complete cycle and be able to do everything in an automated fashion without having to key in everything."
The good news is that this hurdle is gradually being taken down. More than 40% of the survey respondents said they plan to install software that integrates their electronic payment systems with their accounting systems in the next two years.
"One of the biggest surprises of the survey is that the biggest barrier to electronic payments is on the road to elimination," Ms. Chapman said.
Pam West, senior vice president of executive business-to-business electronic commerce at Bank of America Corp., said she generally agrees with the survey's findings, but that integration issues vary depending on the customer segment.
"There isn't as much integration required for smaller companies as there is for larger companies," Ms. West said. "Larger companies put in large ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems, so they have common systems worldwide. Smaller companies don't have those big systems."
Two-thirds of the respondents identified security, identity verification, and message integrity as barriers to Web payments and remittances.
Despite these flaws - and the more than 65 billion checks still being written each year - Web commerce is definitely viable, Ms. Chapman said.
"Our members have said electronic payments are less expensive than checks and have a higher certainty of pay date, which leads to improved cash flow forecasting," she said. "It is more convenient and less troublesome than cutting checks. There are major advantages to making electronic payments."