E-banking portals are a critical part of a corporate treasurer's toolkit. These comprehensive platforms often combine cash management, trade finance and securities services functions into a single engine empowering users to do more from their desktops.
Over the past decade, banks have continually acknowledged customer demands for web-based products by developing ever more capable e-banking portals. For example, Standard Chartered Bank launched its first electronic host-to-host connection with clients in 1998, added product-specific web portals in 2002, and created a single engine platform Straight2Bank in 2007.
Today, comprehensive and functional web platforms targeted at corporate treasurers have become ubiquitous in the banking market. Malaysia's Maybank has Maybank2e.net. Emirates NBD in the United Arab Emirates offers smartBUSINESS, and Wells Fargo in the US has Wells Fargo CEO.
But most banks mask these very capable systems behind obsolete interfaces that barely cross the web 2.0 threshold. Web 2.0 refers to a second generation of web development and design that is characterised by information sharing, interoperability, user-centred design and collaboration.
"The core features of functionality are there," wrote Celent senior analyst Jacob Jegher in a report on banks' web platforms. "It's really a question of what banks need to do to improve the customer's interaction and experience with their products."
Designs lack the visual, easy to use and customisable dashboards users are accustomed to thanks to the likes of Apple and Google. Popular wikis [websites that use wiki software to allow the easy creation and editing of any number of interlinked web pages] and other user-generated content and communities are few and far between.
Standard Chartered's Straight2Bank is one such comprehensive system that also shares many of the industry's design issues.
"Straight2Bank is a complete working capital solution," said Tommy Chong, a transaction banking director at the bank, who was heavily involved in the system's development. In a demo of Straight2Bank for FinanceAsia, he ran through the blue tabs at the top of the homepage -- cash management, trade finance, securities services and global markets -- to demonstrate the system's capabilities.
Underneath the four tabs, offerings include collections, document and information management, foreign exchange, offline electronic banking, payments, Swift access and supply chain finance. All together, Straight2Bank puts more than 100 individual actions at the fingertips of subscriber CFOs and treasurers.
The homepage of Straight2Bank also offers some limited user customisation. Based on a corporation's parameters and an employee's authorisation level, the user can select a few modules for the homepage including account balances, message centre and recent transactions.
"It's designed as a single port of call for our clients' evolving transaction, information and hedging needs," said Michael Vrontamitis, Standard Chartered's transaction banking head of product management for Northeast Asia.
If colour schemes and transaction capabilities were all it took to offer users a visual and interactive experience, Straight2Bank would be top of its class. Unfortunately, colours and capabilities buried under four or five clicks are not enough in today's individualised internet world; the platform -- like those at rival banks -- lacks an obvious rich internet application interface with the visualisation of an iPod touch or the "drop-and-drag" ability of an iGoogle homepage.
In his report, Jegher cited a concern among banks that too much individual customisation could cause technical support "nightmares", and a lack of the necessary technology as reasons why they have yet to implement web 2.0 platforms.
Another issue, especially for banks offering a single online portal for global operations, is local regulations. "Regulators look at resilience, security, data integrity and adherence to local requirements," said Craig Millar, another director in Standard Chartered's transaction banking division.
Of course, web 2.0 functions, like any new banking product, would need to comply with the regulatory standards of various jurisdictions. However, most visual and easy-to-use interfaces are, as Tim O'Reilly put it, more of an entirely "new way of thinking" internet software and less a change in transaction compliance functions. O'Reilly is widely credited with coining the term web 2.0.
Despite the design limitations of banks' web platforms, customers still want them. According to Deutsche Bank, usage of their db-direct internet platform grew 20% from June 2008 to June 2009. And Standard Chartered's Vrontamitis referred to Straight2Bank as the bank's "most heavily trafficked branch".
There is no denying web-based platforms provided by banks have come a long way. E-banking has evolved over the years from direct host-to-host connections for single purpose transactions to today's multi-functional internet portals. And enhancements continue.
Straight2Bank added Chinese yuan transaction processing capabilities for cross-border trade settlements last Friday and earlier this year Standard Chartered launched a mobile payment authorisation application for executives on the go.