The history of Isabel
Isabel increases the efficiency of the financial value chain by providing online banking services which standardise electronic banking (e-banking) activity across Europe. This also includes electronic invoicing (e-invoicing) and access to electronic government (e-government). The solutions available enable large companies, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and government agencies to choose the best products and services from over 25 banks, and conveniently combine different services within one single, easy to manage portal. Isabel solutions are fully integrated in more than 30 local and international accounting and enterprise resource solution (ERP) solutions.
Isabel is a non-competitive solution that has continued to evolve since it was established in 1995 through the mutual collaboration of Belgian banks. It strives to meet and exceed the e-banking requirements of the local market through its branded Isabel software, as well as reach the wider Single Euro Payments Area ( ) and international banking community through white-label solutions.
There are four aspects to the success of the Isabel offering:
1. A single contractual framework between customer and bank. This process is undertaken as follows: the customer signs a bank contract when setting up each of their bank accounts, the customer signs an Isabel contract at their bank of choice; each bank provisions the required data into the Isabel administration function; and full customer configuration is completed automatically by Isabel. The process is simple and integrated saving time and money.
2. One security scheme. All users are issued with a secure-chip Isabel card (see figure 1) that is accepted by all Isabel member banks and a large number of e-government agencies. The card is used to authenticate the user undertaking the e-transactions by asking them to insert the card into the provided Isabel card reader. Isabel is the certificate authority for the scheme and provides the required digital certificates to all users to ensure the correct individuals and companies can access the necessary and authorised information. This element of Isabel is vital as it guarantees the authenticity of the person who uses it and the integrity of the messages exchanged. To further support this, Isabel has created a Certificate Policy which offers a set of strict rules for the supply and use of an Isabel card.
Figure 1: Isabel card
3. An agreed web-based application. This intuitive user-interface (see figure 2) brings an organisation's finances together into an easy-to-access portal which can be viewed anywhere, anytime. Banks integrate this platform into their own internet banking solution and also have the opportunity to build on this platform to offer innovative, additional services for their customers.
Figure 2: Isabel user interface
4. Standardised and secure interfaces. All payment, direct debit and reporting files have been standardised by Isabel. There are three contributing factors to this standardisation process: local standards from the Belgian Financial Sector Federation (Febelfin) - which represents 238 members; payment schemes and frameworks as outlined by the European Payments Council ( ); and Isabel's established and evolving defacto standards.
Today, Isabel software facilitates secure online transactions. This meets the needs of the 35,000 SMEs, large corporates, government departments, schools, accountants and social secretariats across Belgium. Isabel has also extended its offering to meet the needs of Belgian citizens wanting to manage household bills and salary slips online in their bank's internet banking application.
Isabel 6 is the latest release of the Isabel software, which enables professionals to efficiently manage the finance value chain within an organisation from invoice to payment by automating many accounting tasks and supporting e-banking (see figure 3). The solution facilitates payments and the management of account information across multiple bank accounts. It also supports Direct Debit payments and Credit Transfers nationally and internationally. Over 300 million transactions, with a value of 1,500 billion euro, are processed each year using the software. There are a number of local and international accounting and ERP solutions that fully integrate with the Isabel software.
Figure 3: Overview of the Isabel 6 framework
All Isabel users have their own personal Isabel Secure Signing Card (as outlined earlier). This smart card enables them to sign documents digitally in all Isabel applications. The framework is also used to support access to several e-government service desks. The Federal Public Service (FPS) of Belgium has an increasing number of services online including access to the social security site and the National Bank of Belgium to log annual accounts.
Zoomit is an e-bill (e-invoice) scheme that banks can integrate into their internet banking application to drastically improve the way creditors and debtors interact.
Billers can deliver their bills directly into the internet banking application of their customer avoiding costly, slow and unreliable paper flows. Consumers are informed by e-mail when a new bill is available. They can view them in the internet banking application and pay them with a click, without any data entry. The pre-filled payment forms guarantees correct payment including all creditor references. If they forget the payment, they will get a reminder just before the due day. The underlying payment is processed via the credit transfer scheme.
Zoomit creates a positive payment experience for the consumer. He loses less time with paperwork and has a better grip on his payments. The biller will benefit from an increased speed and quality of collections. He can reduce his operational costs and contribute to a better environment. Banks can improve customer service for creditors and debtors.
According to the latest figures, seventy million documents are managed by Zoomit, and each month 30,000 new customers chose to start managing pay slips and invoices with the application. At the end of 2012, the number of users is expected to reach 900,000.
There are many stakeholders engaged in the Isabel community. Banks, users (from large corporates to individuals), as well as software partners that enable the solution to perform as required, and business partners that enhance the Isabel solution to meet unique business and technical requirements.
For companies, there are many benefits gained by using the solution, including speed, efficiency, simplicity and accessibility. These benefits combine to offer a central management and financial monitoring solution, which encourages competition and innovation between banks operating in Belgium while delivering a consistent customer experience. Managing all banks within one - bank independent - application allows customers to get the best bank service, without the hassle of multiple applications and security tokens. All transactions across all bank accounts are securely presented in one application.
By working in collaboration, banks have advanced the development of Isabel using the best expertise from across the marketplace. It has also shared the burden of investing in the evolution of such a sophisticated solution.
As previously mentioned, Isabel ensures complete alignment to the Schemes to realise and ensure Belgian companies can effectively manage and execute payments at a national, European and international level. The solution has also been adopted outside of Belgium through a variety of initiatives in Luxemburg as a white label product. The solution has also generated interest internationally, as banks located outside of have invested in the white label platform to deliver secure banking services across Europe. Using this proven solution provides reassurances that the technology meets the required standards.
For the Belgian and wider marketplace, e-banking continues to gain traction as costs are reduced for banking activities for all parties and efficiency is increased. Isabel will continue to evolve to ensure it meets future needs and enhances the framework to provide a sustainable and secure e-banking environment.
Christian Luyten is Head of Communications at Isabel, and Régis Verschueren is Senior Corporate Sales Manager at Isabel.
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SEPA Standards: The History and Vision of CBI ( Newsletter, Issue 14, April 2012)
SEPA Standards: The History and Vision of EBICS ( Newsletter, Issue 13, January 2012)
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