For decades, financial institutions and corporations have sought an easy and standard method of exchanging electronic financial messages. MT standards, X.25 and all the EDI formats were supposed to solve deficits in the data and finance reporting space. In 2004, when the first publication of ISO 20022 was released, payments practitioners and industry professionals all had the same thought: What a great idea!

At the time, it made absolute sense to introduce data-rich payments to improve automation, enhance reporting and analytics, improve interoperability and decrease risk through accurate reconciliation and regulatory compliance activities.

By 2018, many wondered why the industry hadn’t widely adopted ISO 20022. Although some countries adopted ISO 20022 for payments systems by 2019, most did not realize the potential of the rich data within streams. That same year, when SWIFT mandated an ISO 20022 rollout for 2021, with richer data than its old MT standard, the industry started investing more heavily in the adoption of ISO 20022. Despite this mandate, the roll-out plan was pushed out to 2022, and again more recently, to the first quarter of 2023.

These delays (and what seems like a reluctance to make ISO 20022 happen in some jurisdictions) led me to wonder, “What’s hindering the global adoption of ISO 20022 and the rich data structures it supports?” The answer may lie in the balance of benefits and costs of adoption.

What is the value of adopting ISO 20022?

Numerous publications on the topic have boasted the benefits of adopting ISO 20022. As a community, payments professionals and practitioners were promised numerous benefits from a processing and payments operations perspective, related to the rich and structured data of ISO 20022:

  • Ability to transfer more complete and accurate information between banks and other FIs
  • Higher straight-through processing rates using the rich information
  • Fewer manual validations from a regulatory compliance perspective
  • Ability for compliance teams to focus on investigating true hits rather than false positives
  • No truncated information and no data loss
  • Little to no limitation on the number of characters travelling with the payment messages
  • Interoperability between interconnecting core banking systems, market infrastructures and end users
  • Easier development due to the format’s use of XML, a common language

Theoretically, these ISO 20022 benefits are great. But to understand the big picture, we must address the challenges.

What are the challenges of adopting ISO 20022?

The industry has faced multiple challenges with the adoption of ISO 20022. Timelines are aggressive (though the pressure is largely due to inactivity from an ISO 20022 adoption perspective), and many institutions find themselves with a lack of resources to be able to make the roll-out deadlines. Additionally, ISO 20022 regularly updates its message standard and publishes new versions of message types regularly. How do financial institutions and FinTechs keep up with this fast-paced change? It would benefit adopters to implement a system that can adapt to change easily. FinTechs could develop software that’s made for change to stay ahead of the evolving standard.

Many well-established financial institutions and market infrastructures rely on legacy systems running on an aging infrastructure, which is a challenge the industry needs to overcome. Moreover, these legacy systems speak a language that is not easily compatible with ISO 20022, and the message formats are typically far more stringent than even ISO 20022’s predecessor ISO 15022 (with formats for CHIPS, BACS, CPA005 and ACH, to name a few). These systems were originally developed to process low-value payments at very low cost. Meanwhile adopting ISO 20022 can be very costly for the participants of the payments ecosystem—so how can we argue that the value in adopting ISO 20022 for these systems outweighs the cost?

Key advantages come from business value

With little to no limitation in data and a highly structured format, there is more to ISO 20022 than payments advantages. To have a truly impactful conversation, we must consider the business value that ISO 20022 adoption can provide.

  • Corporate treasurers receive tools required to enhance cash flow forecasting and improve reconciliation processes with richer, comprehensive data.
  • With increased automation potential, treasurers benefit from faster payments with less friction, allowing quick decision making while meeting payment cut-off deadlines for sweeping and investing activities.
  • The payments community could consistently send the same structure in payment messages to multiple, geographically distributed entities without having to develop a bank-specific format.
  • Data required in one jurisdiction, but optional in another, can consistently travel with the payment message whether required or not.
  • The payments community gives business users the full set of data that can be contained within purchase orders and invoices, rather than a series of truncated or contracted characters.
  • Individuals could simply click on their payroll deposit in their bank account to see their full paystub, rather than having to get the details from another system.

Perhaps ISO 20022 shouldn’t be perceived as today’s biggest value driver, but rather as the catalyst for innovation that will accelerate value-driven growth tomorrow. In a way, ISO 20022 adoption is paving the way for the next generations of payments professionals to create opportunities for the development of the industry. It allows more players in the FinTech space to collaborate with financial institutions to innovate the payments landscapes and to co-create in a climate of competition.

70 countries have already successfully modernized payments infrastructure and implemented faster payments schemes powered by ISO 20022. Forward-thinking institutions in these countries can start developing value-added services and features like automated receivables tracking and reconciliation, real-time cash balances and forecasting, real-time multibank dashboards and more.

Should institutions and companies wait until there is a more immediate return on investment to adopt ISO 20022?

Ask yourself, “Do I want to wait until I lose a client to someone who can offer services on a real-time basis?” I believe that cross-border payments globalization will remain one of the trends that drives payments modernization. Standardization, consistency and rich data are key elements of this globalization initiative. Similarly to the telecommunications industry implementing the 5G network despite no obvious immediate business value or widespread end-user use cases, achieving complete interoperability in payments may take longer than we initially anticipated. However, as a part of the payments community, I challenge us to invest in a vision that goes beyond an imminent ROI and see the potential of data-rich, structured payments to create an inclusive, collaborative future for the payments industry. Let’s give ourselves the opportunity to accelerate payments innovation and make ISO 20022 table stakes.

Modernize your payments with the IBM Payments Center

Related categories

More from Banking

Successful collaboration with DAI Source and IBM helped PortX pioneer cloud-native connectivity to the Federal Reserve

3 min read - Thanks to digital transformation, banking looks nothing like it did a generation ago. In fewer than 30 years, customers have gone from queuing up in a physical bank during lunchtime and weekends, to transferring money and cashing checks via mobile phones at any hour, virtually anywhere on the planet. All that technological infrastructure is not easy to maintain. The global fintech market was valued at USD 112.5 billion in 2021, and researchers predict it will reach USD 332.5 billion by 2028.…

3 min read

How can we learn from Mother Nature?

4 min read - Nothing in nature operates individually. Nature works in a connected, circular ecosystem where everything is leveraged, shared and repurposed. Did you know that a grain of sand from the Saharan desert affects the fertility of the Amazon Forest? Or that seaweed in the ocean can produce around 70% of the oxygen in the atmosphere? In nature, everything is perfectly orchestrated in harmony. Why can’t our future economy be the same? Specifically, how can we enhance our banking and payments ecosystem…

4 min read

Don’t rebuild your SWIFT connectivity on cloud

4 min read - Banks and businesses worldwide have embarked on a modernization journey, trying to re-imagine their systems and get ready for the world of tomorrow. While each institution faces different challenges, all are seeking common goals: new and improved channel experiences, integrated new technologies, cost management and cost takeout, improved risk management and security, reduced down-time, and operational efficiency. These goals are aimed to set the foundation for growth and agility and ultimately a better client experience. To support this journey, most…

4 min read

How does technology drive business transformation?

4 min read - In the relentless race for innovation and sustainable growth, organizations have always looked to technology to be the catalyst for driving business results. Whether the objective was focused on getting data as the single source of truth to determine analytics capabilities for decision making, reducing costs through process optimization, or driving business continuity for economic survival in a competitive environment, technology has fueled value creation through business transformation. Let us look at the broader definition of business transformation. A business…

4 min read