Wachovia Corp. makes it a rule to avoid what is often called "bleeding edge" technology.
But the North Carolina-based bank doesn't mind running a little bit ahead of the pack when it believes the potential gain is worth the investment.
That is certainly true of Wachovia's commitment to computer-aided software engineering, known as CASE, which promises huge gains in software development productivity.
Wachovia has spent more than $3 million on CASE technology since 1991, confident that it will provide a competitive edge in the design and maintenance of new banking products.
"If CASE delivers even a fraction of what we feel comfortable it will do, this is a very important thing for us over the long haul," said Walter E. Leonard Jr., president of Wachovia Operational Services Inc., the bank's technology subsidiary.
Most major banks, including First Chicago Corp., Norwest Corp., and Banc One Corp., have at least experimented with limited applications of CASE, which was introduced in the mid-1980s.
But Wachovia is one of the few to apply CASE as an across-the-board technical tool, intended to speed up software development and make that software easier to maintain.
The main aspect of CASE technology is the code generator, which automates the writing of computer code.
By simplifying the code-writing process, CASE allows a company to spend more time designing its software and figuring out appropriate business processes.
"You use the power of the personal computer to translate that vision into well-defined, executable code," Mr. Leonard said.
"Most of the effort put into systems development is maintaining old systems," he said. "So when a system is built under a CASE environment, that maintenance cycle is far easier because it is self-documented in terms of how it works. The work flows are visually apparent to a new person looking at that system, and it makes that system much easier to maintain."
Judy Martin-Mitchell, a vice president at First Chicago, said CASE delivers significant" productivity gains if the user understands its limitations.
"It's certainly not a silver bullet," Ms. Mitchell said. "It's a very difficult way to do systems work. It takes a real commitment to make it work."
First Chicago, which began experimenting with CASE in 1988, is using a version produced by Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc.
Wachovia purchased its CASE technology from Knowledgeware Inc. of Atlanta and Bachman Information Systems Inc. of Burlington, Mass.
The main advantage of the CASE approach is that it generates unusually error-free code.
Once that code is produced, there is less need for subsequent debugging, which is the bane of most other software development techniques.
However, the use of a different design method requires extensive retraining of programmers, and much more time must be devoted to the initial design work.
"It's not a quick fix," Mr. Leonard said. "We understood it to be a long-term cultural change in the way you develop and manage systems. CASE requires training and cultural change with your systems developers. It has to be installed over time as you create more of your base software under this umbrella."
Wachovia is using CASE technology both to design new systems and maintain old ones. What Wachovia terms the "full CASE workbench" covers a product's total life span, from planning to production to later modification.
Cecil O. Smith Jr., head of Wachovia's Information Services unit, estimates that building a system from the ground up using CASE produces a 25% productivity gain, though he can't prove that empirically. The real payback, he said, occurs over the entire life cycle of a product, which can be 10 years or more.
Wachovia is using the CASE workbench in a major joint development effort with New York-based Financial Technologies International Inc. to enhance its trust system.
An in-house CASE effort will develop a new system for supporting charitable tax-trust funds.
"Developer's workbench" is what Wachovia calls the process of using CASE tools to maintain existing software.
Mr. Smith calculates that this use of CASE, which is actually the most common in the banking industry, produces a lesser productivity boost of 10% to 15%.
Wachovia believes CASE will do more than just make life easier for its applications programmers.
Ultimately, the technology is supposed to enhance the level of service offered by bankers.
"Hopefully, they'll see an ability on Wachovia's part to produce new products more easily and quickly, and have a more competitive product line at lower cost," Mr. Leonard said.
"The quality of our software is the bedrock upon which our product line is built," he said. "Our ability to develop cost-effective, reliable, flexible software will, over the long haul, define our ability to compete in this marketplace. We think CASE is one of the tools that we'll have to use to do that."