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Mark Polson: Platform trauma of 2018

 Mark Polson: Platform trauma of 2018

And so we complete another trip around the sun. We are bruised but not battered, bloodied but unbowed. And any of you who were warming up to a Scottish deep-fried Mars bar joke at the ‘battered’ bit of that should immediately report for cultural sensitivity training, otherwise known as a ‘boot in the baws’.

I’ve been writing this column for four years or so, and what with one thing or another I’ve been in and around platforms for a little over a decade, maybe a decade and a half if you include workplace pensions and employee benefits technologies. I’m casting around for a more tumultuous year, and the only one I can come up with is RDR, or perhaps PS13/1. That makes this the most important 12 months in platforms for at least five years. And not in a good way.

I think the year splits into three big themes – replatforming, corporate activity, and regulation. I’ll hit them one by one. I’m afraid there won’t be as many jokes as usual, mainly because too much of what’s happened this year isn’t funny. 

Replatforming

This has been the year that replatforming broke, or possibly that broke replatforming. I’m not into kicking those who are already down, but we can’t let the unfortunate twins of the Aviva Platform and the Aegon Platform (seriously, we can surely do better than these names, how about we crowdsource it? The latter is known at Lang Cat towers as ‘The artist formerly known as Cofunds’) go without a mention. Both platforms have, for different reasons, had a nightmare, and both are on the long, slow climb back to some sort of equilibrium. 

And they’re not alone – Quilter (formerly Old Mutual Wealth) is still in build with FNZ after last year’s aborted £330m spend with International Financial Data Services, and this year we saw Kleinwort pull out of a £40m build. I don’t know how much money has been wasted on either aborted or mishandled replatforming projects, but it’s a lot, and is probably one of those complicated ‘-illion’ words Steve Bee talks about. 

It is a source of amazement to us that these projects continue to be so poorly executed. It’s easy to blame the technology providers, but that’s not good enough. Every tech firm has instances of their system working fine elsewhere. The truth is that when good – or at least acceptable – tech meets bad business process, there is always going to be an unholy mess. 

I’ve met too many people who have no earthly idea how the proposition decisions they make in the project room with all the brown paper and Post-its on the walls will actually impact clients. Almost every provider believes it can out-manufacture its way to greatness. Almost every adviser firm says they just want the provider to do the basics very well, every time. The mismatch is obvious and untenable.

The issue starts in the boardroom and flows downstream from there. Of course, projects need to be pushed and there are corporate milestones to reach, but an uncomfortable board meeting is surely better than the chaotic inferno of nonsense that follows when you launch an investment platform before it’s ready.