In the rush to embrace new personal computer-based automation tools, today's bank might use any number of word-processing packages, electronic mail, and spreadsheets.

Within a single bank, one set of departments might operate Lotus and Word. Another might use Excel and WordPerfect. Still others in the bank may cling to systems and products made by companies that have gone out of business. The result: administrative chaos.

What's a modern financial services company to do in an environment like this? While software and hardware developers try to arrive at computer industry standards, some proactive banks have moved forward and instituted their own institution-wide strategies.

Take National Westminster Bancorp, for example, a $28 billion-asset wholly owned subsidiary of London-based National Westminster PLC. Two years ago, executives at the Jersey City-based bank decided to move to a single set of standards while simultaneously building an infrastructure that would enable it to take advantage of emerging client-server technologies.

Under the direction of Jeff Speight, senior vice president of information technology operations, NatWest has embarked on a four-phase office automation plan that will convert the running within 50 NatWest buildings to Microsoft Windows NT 3.5 and Windows Office Suite.

The automation effort will affect all NatWest nonbranch operations including human resources, credit cards, commercial lending, and treasury. Mr. Speight indicated that the project will be completed by the end of 1995 and will cost approximately $14 million.

"Two years ago when we got this project funded, we had roughly 3,000 PCs installed. At the same time, we were installing new PCs at the rate of 20% a year," he explained. "With the PC marketplace exploding, each of those machines was custom-configured with its own hardware and software. Adding to the chaos was that fact that each configuration varied widely from department to department."

Mr. Speight said that the "a la carte" approach was ultimately a resource drain on both talent and time. "The job of managing the technology went to the business units themselves," he explained.

"They had to devote a significant amount of time to technical issues such as memory management, data integrity, conversion, and software installation. Focusing on technology took them away from doing what they do best: generating income."

Banks across the country have come to similar realizations. But these realizations are nothing new. In 1990 Computer Based Solutions Inc., a New Orleans consulting firm, polled more than 500 banks to determine banker's key concerns about competing in the future.

Concerns over standards was cited by more than 90 percent of the respondents.

"The CEO ought to be on the same systems that the secretary down the hall is on. Everyone wants to be 'singing from the same hymnal' so to speak. Few people will argue with that," said M. Arthur Gillis, president of Computer Based Solutions.

"When it comes to conforming to standards, bigger banks have a monumental challenge in front of them simply because of their operating size."

NatWest's strategy was to standardize its desktop platform, upgrade the communications network, and manage technology centrally. The bank developed this strategy based on what Mr. Speight and his team considered to be de facto industry standards.

That is where Microsoft's family of products came into play. "Although one product may leapfrog over another in terms of development, we determined that Microsoft was the industry trend-setter and that most developers were writing packages based on Windows," he said.

"Down the road, training expenses and upgrades are cheaper and easier to manage."

The first and second phases of this automation project have been completed in seven of NatWest's 10 major office centers - most of which are located in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area.

Phase 1 focused on installing a new data communications wide area network using intelligent multiplexers. Designed to concentrate communication circuits more efficiently, Mr. Speight compares multiplexers to traffic cops on the information superhighway.

"Intelligent mutliplexers dynamically identify what's on the road ahead and reallocate band width when they see traffic coming," he said.

Each of the 10 main buildings typically has housed 10 or 15 departmental local area networks, or LANs, Mr. Speight said. NatWest's goal is to install building servers as opposed to LAN servers.

"When we are done with this project we will have one building LAN that will have integrated all the departmental LANs into one server operation. We expect to reduce the number or LANs in this organization by 75 percent."

He added that with centralized LAN management, procedures such as data security and backup can be formalized and standardized. Performance measurement and capacity planning are also improved by centralization.

Phase 2 of the project entails replacing disparate PCs with AT&T terminals. Phase 3 involves turning on the Microsoft suite of products. "Until Phase 3 is ready for roll out, employees are still using the software they'd been using all along; with the first two phases in place, the system operates much faster," he said.

Phase 4 involves replacing the bank's ad hoc electronic mail systems with the much-anticipated Microsoft Exchange. NatWest is currently testing a variety of Microsoft electronic mail applications. Mr. Speight said that the bank has enjoyed a long development partnership with Microsoft.

The bank's parent company has a strategic agreement with Microsoft and was directly involved in testing Windows NT and other products.

In the past, a handful of departments used MS Mail while others relied on Wang's system. The Microsoft Exchange effort represents the first time that NatWest will have a companywide communications network and one that enables any number of users to conference simultaneously.

It also will come with a feature that enables an institution to create a product-information library that ties together word-processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, electronic mail messages, and video presentations. Mr. Speight also indicated that the bank was studying Microsoft Exchange for possible electronic forms and work flow applications.

If there is a fifth phase to this effort, it's likely to focus on reengineering. "We feel that once our tools are in place, we will be ripe for a reengineering," said Mr. Speight. "Our research, in fact, shows that we could expect a 30% improvement in productivity."

Throughout the rollout, training has been a critical concern. First, the system was designed from an end user's perspective. Representatives from departments in each building came together to form individual building teams. These representatives performed a "needs analysis" to determine which individuals need what level of training.

"We have in-house training as well as training outside the office to get our staff up to speed on the Microsoft products," said Mr. Speight. "Our training includes computer-based programs on the PC, self-study videos and classroom work."

In the coming months, NatWest executives may be doing a lot of studying. At the same time, the industry will no doubt be studying NatWest, a bank that is setting a standard with new standards.

Ms. Sullivan is a freelance writer based in New York.

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