After seven year itch, bank scratches huge project

Making a virtue out of necessity, the Commonwealth Bank, one of Australia's largest financial institutions, has declared its expensive, long-running Mainstream project a victory and shut it down.

The CBA board's decision to end Mainstream underscores the change in development thinking since the late 80s when mega-projects such as Mainstream and Westpac's ill-fated CS 90 were born. The reality of the fast- changing business landscape of the 90s dictates small and nimble IT development projects rather than grandiose and cumbersome ones. For banks, the accent in core system redevelopment is now firmly fixed on buy and modify, not build in-house. Banking IT insiders speculate that Mainstream cost the CBA at least A$200 million (US$157 million) since its beginnings in 1989.

CBA information services general manager, Peter Andrews, has declined to put any figure on Mainstream's costs and rejects suggestions it fell into the same category as Westpac's failed CS 90. "Mainstream was a series of pieces of work. If we made any mistake, it was in giving them all a single project name," he says.

In seven years, Mainstream delivered new telling and personal loan systems for the bank and completed much of the customer information file system. However, Mainstream's developers found that they were aiming many of their deliverables at a shifting target, thanks in part to CBA's decision to change from OS/2 to Windows NT in its branches. As time went on, the bank changed its delivery perspective, particularly with the redesign and restructure of its branch network over the past two and a half years, Andrews says.

"We have moved from every branch giving a full service to where branches are sales and service environments with the back office processing being handled centrally. As the business logic changed, so has the IT solution. Future development programmes at CBA are likely to reflect the maxim that early deliverables mean early returns," he says. "With competitive pressures being the way they are, particularly with smaller niche organisations moving into the financial area, we have to be as nimble and fleet of foot as they are with their deliverables to the marketplace. What you will see CBA do now is provide product, new channels or IS data warehousing type systems to our business partners as quickly and adroitly as we can.

"It will be done through bespoke development, packages, adapting current systems or what is available. The change in development direction will not result in staff redundancies," Andrews says. The new directions will change the context and number of staff over time but the established base of development staff at the bank will be fully employed in maintenance, enhancements and providing for changes such as the arrival of the new customer credit cards, he says.

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