Staying on top of the flows
The amount of information available to the pensions industry is exploding by the hour. But pensions professionals, whether advisers, managers or providers, can scarcely afford to miss out on what might be a vital development, which may change the way a business can operate. Given the imperative for accurate and up-to-date information what should an effective electronic information environment represent? Can it be made to be a good servant, or could it end up being a bad master? Is it worthwhile sticking with web-based information, or does the serious pensions expert need professionally delivered legal and technical information?
One of the problems is that there isn’t an established process by which electronic information systems can be measured. While we audit and undertake performance evaluations on nearly every other aspect of the business process, the way in which we assess the use and function of electronic information within a business is often left unaddressed. While information flows are often reviewed as part of the corporate communications role, the quality of the information and efficiency with which it is translated into strategic policy or day to day administration are not typically measured.
What are the functions required of an electronic information service? Is it better to go with the equivalent of a pensions industry specific third party information system – such as Reuters or Bloomberg are within financial markets – or can all information be captured and managed internally? What function does the web play within the business? Is the traditional alternative of bought-in market information and comment still making a valuable contribution?
These are wide ranging questions, but ones which can be satisfactorily answered, if the right criteria are established and an understanding is built of the way an individual business needs and uses information and data. Similar criteria can be used both to select and measure the performance of an information service. The basic points to be considered are as follows:
o Macro trading environment: The pensions industry is particularly subject to heavy statutory and legislative requirements and regulations. As such, it is important to keep track of any changes in them. It is also advisable to track promised or even threatened changes. The pensions industry is subject to innumerable and continual reviews, reports, white and green papers, surveys and proposals, not to mention court decisions and ombudsman determinations. These can have a considerable effect on the way a scheme is run, or the type of advice to be given.
o Individual member or scheme reviews: In particular, in the pensions industry there is frequently a need to consider the impact of changes in the law, regulation and practice on a scheme-by-scheme basis. For this purpose, it is essential the information resource is capable of showing changes to the text such that differences between the past, present and future can be readily perceived. Without this how can one decide, or advise on, what actions should be taken in respect of a particular member or in relation to the scheme generally?
Raw data can swamp a business, but missing out on the trends and developing issues is equally risky. It is vital for any pensions business to know not only what the news is but also how it affects the industry in general and the business in particular. In other words, news still needs to be reviewed, relevant information flagged up and basic analysis undertaken. The benefit of an effective pensions information service is that much of the time consuming filtering and assessing has already been undertaken and an overview of developments can be quickly formed.
Most business executives are now ‘computer literate’ and familiar with using the basic software on a standard PC such as Windows and Microsoft Office. Any information service worth its salt will enable and incorporate the methods used by this software within the service itself. Functionality aside, users will be able to learn much more readily the unique features of the resource that represent true added-value and efficiencies. When evaluating which information service provider to use, the training aspect often receives less consideration than it should. The level and depth of training and support given should be a major part of the assessment process.
What features should a pensions information service have? Of prime importance, of course are the accurate display of text, easy access to definitions and notes, instant cross-referencing to related texts and, ideally, the ability to see the texts as in force on any particular date. For a good working document, it is constructive to be able to add comments to the text for the benefit of the user organisation. It is also a practical benefit to be able to cross reference to, or even integrate with, the user organisation’s own documents and intranet – its knowledge base – in whatever form. This can be achieved by creating hyperlinks between various documents at a paragraph level to allow detailed cross references. Also, most users have their preferred way to find documents, so it is best to choose a system that provides multiple ways of accessing documents. This can then accommodate the different needs of different people using the system at different times. Another important requirement is for a powerful, yet flexible, search function to facilitate document retrieval when it is unclear precisely which documents are key to the job at hand.
It is obvious, in an article about information service providers, that the widest range of content should be on offer. This should come hand in hand with the ability to trace what documents have been reviewed as part of a piece of research, so that it is easy to review or use someone else’s research material.
From the above, it will be self-evident that the in-house solution is not the recommended route to take. It is a ‘given’ that every organisation has proprietary documents and processes; but that should not be the ‘tail’ that wags the dog. The real issue is to have an information resource that can best work alongside, or even together with, proprietary information. It is doubtful that many individual organisations have at their disposal a ‘home-made’ resource, which also deals with industry-wide information, that can match the functionality and content offered by leading third party information service suppliers. Indeed, if there was, the organisation would have acquired such a resource at such a high cost as to question the economic sense of such an undertaking.
To many the notion of an ‘electronic’ service is synonymous with a ‘web-based’ service. Beware! With desktop functionality exceeding that delivered through the web, and likely to do so for the foreseeable future, the ‘idée fix’ of remote browser access should not become the criteria by which an information service supplier is selected. By judging the ‘meat’ not the ‘motion’ an organisation will have resourced itself with the best information tool for the job at hand.
Simon Freeman is joint managing director at Pendragon Professional Information, based in London