Not so long ago, James H. Blanchard thought high technology at a bank meant a mainframe computer and a call center.
Today, as the new chairman of the Banking Industry Technology Secretariat, Mr. Blanchard is fully conversant in the lingo of servers and Internet commerce, and he chats with ease about all manner of wireless banking gizmos. He took over at BITS on April 8 and discussed his new role as one of the banking industry's most prominent technology cheerleaders.
"It's an absolute miracle that the banking industry had the foresight to get together and invest in this BITS enterprise," said Mr. Blanchard, a founder of the group, who in his day job is chairman and chief executive officer of Synovus Financial Corp. Because most banks are guarded about the technology they use, "Quite frankly, it's very unbankerlike to want to get involved and join activities like this," he said.
BITS was founded in September 1996 by the Bankers Roundtable, a Washington trade group that is now the Financial Services Roundtable. Online banking and consumer use of the Internet were in their infancy, but the bankers who created BITS were adamant that the industry was ill-prepared to get in front of the incipient revolution. They saw a lack of planning and coordination and feared that nonbank technology companies were poised to usurp banks' roles in the payment system.
The establishment of BITS was "very insightful, very timely," Mr. Blanchard said. "You could always say maybe we were a year late, but we were on the ground and operating within a time frame that was adequate and appropriate."
BITS set out to create standards for electronic security and privacy, to foster an open environment for electronic commerce, and to advance specific innovations, such as electronic checks. The goal was to capture the attention of chief executive officers and other senior bankers, so that technology would lose its stigma as a back-room operation and evolve into a foremost concern.
Mr. Blanchard, who succeeds First Union Corp. chairman and CEO Edward E. Crutchfield as BITS chairman, cited himself as an example of a CEO whose views on technology were enlightened by BITS. Involvement with the group has "created a whole new baseline for me and our organization to really become an activist and literate in the new e-commerce world," he said.
Under Mr. Blanchard's leadership, Synovus Financial, of Columbus, Ga., has taken a number of bold technological steps. It opened a separately branded Internet-only bank called Pointpath. Its credit card processing subsidiary, Total System Services Inc., last month created a separate company, DotsConnect, to sell software that banks and other companies can use to process Internet payments.
The annual meeting in Phoenix of the Financial Services Roundtable and BITS drew about 300 bankers, many of them CEOs, chief technology officers, and chief information officers who gathered this month to hear technology experts describe what they saw on the horizon. When it comes to technology, CEOs "don't need to be scared or convinced any longer," Mr. Blanchard said. "I would say where we have the greatest need today is to get more of them actively involved in the process." In one of his addresses to the group, Mr. Blanchard said, he made a plea for CEOs to "get involved yourself, and get your key people involved, for the good of the organization."
New projects taken up at the BITS meeting reflected today's hot topics in technology. BITS' technology and payment systems committee agreed to form a group committed to developing standards and business practices for wireless technology, which many bankers bet will one day be a good way to deliver banking services. A lack of standards in the United States has stifled banks' ability to serve customers through mobile telephones and other gadgets. "We'll be forming a working group, sinking our teeth into that issue immediately," Mr. Blanchard said.
The issue of screen scraping - or grabbing account information from different Web sites and aggregating it for the convenience of the customer - also stimulated the crowd, Mr. Blanchard said. A fairly new committee looking at the screen-scraper phenomenon delivered a presentation, and lively debate took place on "what we should be doing to protect the integrity of our customers' information and our information, what responsibility do we have if there's a breach on behalf of one of the aggregators."
Mr. Blanchard said, "Over the next three months, there's going to be a flurry of activity to help clarify all those issues."
Business-to-business electronic commerce was another subject that "really stirred up a high level of enthusiasm," he said. "Everyone is trying to figure out how to play that game."
Account aggregation and wireless technology are two of the four new areas where Mr. Blanchard intends to steer the organization. Another is the need to create standards for authentication of Internet payments - consumer-to-business, consumer-to-consumer, and business-to-business. The fourth area concerns the emerging problem of patents that have been granted for business processes, and how these patents may become barriers to electronic commerce.
Last year, in Mr. Crutchfield's term as chairman, BITS had its biggest achievement: the opening of a Financial Services Security Laboratory in Reston, Va. The lab is in the headquarters of Global Integrity Corp., which is the contractor chosen by BITS, and it is developing security standards for Internet technologies and systems. Several bankers have indicated that a BITS stamp of approval would be a prerequisite for their technology purchases.
Among the companies supporting the lab, which opened in July, are Hewlett-Packard Co., International Business Machines Corp., Microsoft Corp., and Sun Microsystems Inc.
The laboratory is "a major breakthrough in the security area," Mr. Blanchard said. "The awareness level we've created throughout the industry on security and privacy is a tremendous accomplishment. I think there's still a lot to be done - by no means have we conquered the security issues - but the momentum is there to have them substantially conquered by the time this sector of our economy really begins to explode with volumes."
Another focus during Mr. Crutchfield's tenure was on using technology to save money. "He was instrumental in using BITS to take billions of dollars of costs out of the existing financial services infrastructure through fraud reduction, electronic check presentment, and electronification initiatives," said Catherine A. Allen, the chief executive officer of BITS.
Ms. Allen said her organization is monitoring the continuing evolution of the Secure Electronic Transaction protocol for Internet payments. BITS has a task force looking at the role of financial institutions in the authentication and authorization of transactions and has endorsed banks' taking the lead in this area, Ms. Allen said. BITS has stopped short of advocating SET but considers the protocol "one of the options that is out there" for authentication, she said.
The developers of the protocol - which include MasterCard International and Visa - are working on a version that might prove simpler and more popular than the original. Renewed interest in SET is particularly heavy in Europe and comes from an "understanding that more and more people are coming online," Ms. Allen said. "You have to think about knowing your customer, and authentication is about knowing who you're dealing with in an online environment."
Ms. Allen is a former Citicorp executive whose decision in early 1997 to become the first chief administrator at BITS filled a void. A founder of the Smart Card Forum, she also brought technological expertise to BITS, whose highest-level founders included not only Mr. Blanchard, but Frank Wobst, chairman of Huntington Bancshares in Columbus, Ohio, and Edward D. Miller, who was then senior vice chairman of Chase Manhattan Corp. Mr. Miller is now president and chief executive officer of Equitable Cos.
Mr. Blanchard cited the accolades that outsiders have given to BITS: Sam Nunn, the retired Democratic senator from Georgia, who sits on the Synovus board of directors, attended the opening of the BITS laboratory and cited the organization as a good example of how private-sector leadership can ease the need for federal regulation. Comptroller of the Currency John D. Hawke Jr. has praised BITS' work on security and privacy, Mr. Blanchard said. And Mr. Blanchard carries with him a quotation from Carl Cargill, director of standards at Sun Microsystems Inc.: "BITS has wrested control of online banking standards away from vendors."
"The underlying premise of all of this," Mr. Blanchard said, "is that we think the Internet is for real, and we think it is changing the landscape forever. There is zero possibility that in five years we are going to look back and say, 'What ever happened to the Internet? What ever happened to e-commerce?' "