ABN AMRO, a Dutch bank with operations throughout the world, needed a tool to facilitate text-based communication throughout its global financial markets network. Conventional instant messaging couldn’t provide the security and archiving capabilities required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Andy Konchan, director of global financial markets e-commerce with ABN AMRO, said that the company was looking for an easy-to-use product that was fine-tuned for business. The company chose MindAlign, a product from Divine, Inc. that was originally developed at UBS Warburg especially for banking and investment applications.

ABN AMRO rolled out MindAlign to over 45 countries in 71 cities across the world following a successful pilot program launched in late 2001. About 1,500 employees use the system, mostly in the global financial markets division. The system is also used by other business units such as IT, equities, prime brokerage, and futures.

Connecting so many people in so many places was quite a challenge, but the process of deploying the system on Solaris servers with Windows clients went fairly smoothly.

“Our IT department did a fantastic job of rolling it out,” Konchan said. “There were a few teething pains, but divine quickly sorted them out for us, and now it’s a very stable and reliable system internally.”

Collaboration across time zones—and languages
ABN AMRO makes extensive use of MindAlign’s channel model to keep traders up-to-date, although the system also supports one-on-one private chats as well. The channels—which are similar to chat rooms—are organized around products, such as credit, foreign exchange, emerging markets, or government bonds. The foreign exchange channel, for example, has about 400 members, including everyone in trading and distribution, plus economists and strategists involved with that market. As things happen in the market, the information goes into the secure channel.

In addition to keeping employees informed as things happen throughout the workday, MindAlign also makes it easier for them to catch up on activities in related markets that were open overnight.

“Let’s say you’re based in Europe and you’ve gone home for the night,” Konchan said. “Then you come in the next day and you’re able to get caught up on all the other chat that has transpired in the Asian markets.”

Most channels are in English, although it’s not the native language for all users. Konchan said that nonnative speakers typically find it easier to handle the language in written form.

“It actually helps break down language barriers because, as you get more and more of your content on chat, it’s much easier to understand it and absorb it,” Konchan said.

For ABN AMRO users, another advantage is that MindAlign makes it easier for employees to find and manage relevant information.

“People in investment banking or wholesale banking are very, very busy. They’ve got a lot of things on their screen, a lot of people to talk to, and they have to be very good at multitasking,” Konchan explained. “Most people have three screens already that are full of applications and information.”

Konchan says that employees join, on average, eight to 12 channels. Employees typically set up a “dock” or list of channels to manage the channels and private chats to which they belong. The dock appears as an icon in the toolbar and can be used to launch or shut down the application.

There are various options for notification when new messages come in. Konchan said users may set the dock to play a sound and float above all other windows when a message comes in. Users can make the alerts highly selective so they aren’t constantly interrupted by irrelevant chat. Konchan said a user can also set MindAlign to filter channel information so that he or she is notified anytime the Japanese yen is mentioned, for example.

Installation and maintenance
David Zaret, product manager for MindAlign and director of collaboration architecture for divine, said that the product will run on either Solaris or Windows servers. He said that most companies run MindAlign on a network of midrange boxes, with each server handling about 2,000 users. Client PCs can run Windows 9x, Me, 2000, or NT. Another option is the Web client, which will run on any browser and can be set up to run on iPAQs or other wireless devices.

Maintaining the system is similar to maintaining an e-mail backbone, Zaret said. The IT department maintains user directories, permissions, and authorizations.

Once MindAlign is installed, IT departments, and in some cases users, can create customized application program interfaces (APIs) to communicate specific information to specific groups of people. Zaret said that one company has created around 500 API extensions to help with various business processes.

In some cases, IT departments themselves use APIs to track development and support issues. Zaret said one company’s IT department has tied its ticket-tracking system into MindAlign. When a user calls the help desk with a problem, the help desk creates a ticket, and the API posts a summary of a help-desk ticket automatically to channels with users who may be affected.

They’ve also integrated the system from the client side, so users now can enter a problem directly into the topic room and an API will generate a ticket for the help desk. The API saves support personnel from having to enter the information into the system manually based on a user’s phone call.

Many security options
MindAlign’s security capabilities are critical to most businesses in its market, especially to the financial services industry. Zaret said that MindAlign was designed with three security factors in mind: authentication, authorization, and persistence.

MindAlign authenticates users by requiring them to present their credentials when they log on. The system can then pass the credentials to an existing corporate internal authentication directory. “A large number of our clients use NT and NT domain controls for authentication, and MindAlign will delegate directly to those domain controllers to guarantee that the person is who they say they are,” Zaret said.

Once users are authenticated, authorization determines what they can see and do on the system. “We provide very detailed, granular levels of authorization such that administrators can control on a per-person, per-channel basis who has permission to see content, to read content, to provide content, and to search content,” he said.

The system can even require authorization before a channel will be visible to a user. For example, a CEO might have a direct-report channel where he or she is talking only to other c-level executives and chooses to make the channel invisible to anyone not on the list.

Persistence is an aspect of security that the SEC and financial institutions especially care about, Zaret said. “The ability of MindAlign to centrally log and manage all messages—be it messages on the channels or private messages between individuals—is a core part of the product and has been since day one,” said Zaret, who worked on developing the product at UBS Warburg. The SEC wants messages to be accessible through an archive in case a company’s trading practices are ever questioned.

Pricy project met ROI threshold
Zaret said MindAlign is typically used in large enterprises. “It’s not a tool for a company with 50 people, unless they’re all over the world,” he said. MindAlign’s smaller clients may have around 1,000 users, while its largest clients have tens of thousands of users.

MindAlign charges for both servers and clients, with per-client pricing decreasing as the number of users increases. A company spokesperson said that for installations of 1,000 users, MindAlign usually runs about $80 per seat.

Financial services firms invest in MindAlign in part to ensure that all electronic communication is archived to comply with SEC regulations. They can also realize savings in the time employees spend on sharing information by using the product.

ABN AMRO’s Konchan declined to say exactly how the company has evaluated the payoff from MindAlign. However, Konchan said, “I can say that MindAlign ROI has already exceeded the threshold set by the bank.”