In the late eighties and even the early nineties, Lloyd's of London IT directors took some terrible stick because it was well known that Lloyd's was one of the biggest remaining users of punch cards. To IT directors, this was a terrible slur on their elevated status.

But the problem was not quite as it appeared. The cards were not used as technology – that is, as program compilers, for those who remember – but as a device useful to underwriters in the Lloyd's market. Punch cards did, and still would, fit unobtrusively into one's inside pocket. For this reason, brokers and underwriters were able to print off information from their computers for the following morning's business – information that could be read and scribbled on during the morning train journey into London. But, as ever, this part of city life was discarded for entirely the wrong reason. With it, a simple convenience effectively vanished.

The market was probably seen as moving towards an electronic system that would enable brokers and underwriters to carry out the same function on a laptop. But in reality, the majority of them could not be bothered with this cumbersome replacement for the simplicity of the punch card.

New generation of telephony

Now, ten years after the punch card's demise, palmtops and new telephone technology offer themselves up as potential replacements. The Wap (Wireless Airwaves Protocol) telephone has been touted as a solution, yet almost before it has been developed, this technology is already out-of-date. The ability of small hand-held devices to handle email and electronic diaries is always improving. At last, these functions fit into an unobtrusive piece of equipment that could actually enhance the life of the insurance expert – whether in the general market or the London and global market.

The hand-held palmtop's ability to download information through telephone lines, transmit information from one user to another and automatically update systems in the back office could transform the London market – while at the same time allowing it to retain its anachronistic negotiation methods. Brokers will have at their fingertips 24-hour service, seven days a week, enabling them to exchange important information from equipment the size of a small wallet. Of course, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is purely hypothetical.

Currently, there is a restriction on the ability of hand-held devices to provide a complete service. Therefore, mobile telephones have to be retained. But the recent government negotiations for telephone licences is the first step towards a third generation of telephone technology that will provide even better data retrieval opportunities.

The agenda for the next generation is to link the palmtop with the telephone. Everybody knows that over time innovations can become smaller, or at least more efficient. Currently, ‘travelling light' means bringing a mobile telephone and a palmtop system. But even then, there is a limit to the information available to the user. The developments anticipated by third-generation telephony include the creation of a one-hand–held device that can provide voice, video, image and data.

Pros and cons

For personal rather than business use, there might be some question about the need to include video just to inform somebody at home that the train is late. But at least the equipment will provide travel and traffic news as well. Not even all businesses will need the complete package of multimedia options that are likely to be provided. There are some businesses, however, for which such electronic help on minimalist equipment would be a godsend. Insurance is probably one of them.

On the other hand, the continued reduction in the size of equipment may become too much. The latest laptop computer may be as far as some people want to go – particularly the travelling general insurance salesman. But the earphone-using mobile executives who can be seen talking into space around the City will almost certainly take the whole system as soon as it is available.

Often, especially in the enclosed environment of the London market, new paperless proposals hit a brick wall because of the “thin edge of the wedge” syndrome with regards to job losses for the slip-carrying brokers.

At the same time, such new developments can sometimes prove difficult because there is a lack of imagination in their use. Developing technology cannot be stopped, therefore it is as well to adapt the innovation to the business opportunities. It could be, however, that the larger players in the London-based global market are gradually beginning to introduce more efficient methods of minimising paper volume while retaining the broker role.

At the moment, the ideas are purely for designers of major telephone manufacturers such as Nokia and Ericson, but the new generation of telephony will be available from next year. Current stumbling blocks do not arise from the technology itself, but rather from the requirement to provide users with infrastructure for its operation. Once available, the technology may not be as much used as ordinary mobile telephones, but it will be there for businesses to adapt to their best advantage in their mobilised work force.

Some of this is probably too much too soon for some businesses, especially when it comes to smoothly integrating the technology. But it does mean that business development can take into account a fairly simple technology that can be provided by an external supplier and does not demand a great deal of in-house adaptation.

Gone are the days of the slow delivery of IT reports and solutions. Business can do without the frustration of waiting for information. With the new developments soon to be available from telephony, everyone's destiny could well be in their own hands.

  • Roger Ford Associates are independent consultants.