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Collaboration Pays Off With Western & Southern's Web-Based Needs Analysis Tool

Thin client, HTML-based tool, which received a 2013 SMA Innovation in Action award, is improving sales performance and compliance.

There's a lot of talk in the insurance industry today about the need for cross-functional and cross-line-of-business collaboration as a key to driving growth, but many organizations still struggle to achieve this. But diversified financial company Western & Southern Financial Group (W&S) is addressing this challenge with Financial Focus 2, a web-based and mobile-friendly needs analysis and fact-finding tool that was launched in 2012 for the company's Western & Southern Life operations. The tool's patent-pending "PathFinder" capability allows agents and clients to collaboratively design financial roadmaps and needs analysis. It already has helped improve the performance of W&S's sales organization, provided better visibility into the fact-finding tasks performed by the company's producers, and improved compliance reporting through automated enforcement of suitability rules, according to vice president and CTO Doug Ross. This success contributed to the company being recognized this week with an SMA Innovation in Action award.

"This was an extremely collaborative effort, with a very solid project manager from the business team," Ross says. The entities who can now more effectively work together, he notes, include people from "compliance, product design, marketing, experts on retirement and Social Security. All these play a part in the package – we're trying to bring a holistic view to needs analysis." The development team

Another noteworthy aspect of this initiative is that the solution was developed internally at a time when packaged solutions have gained dominance. "There was not a lot of appetite for doing a custom package," Ross concedes. However, after it was determined in 2010 that W&S's legacy Sterling Wentworth (which was eventually acquired by SunGard) tool needed to be retired because it "didn't match the overall approach of how the company wanted to make it easier for agents to do fact finding and needs analysis," it became apparent that there was not an existing packaged solution that would meet these goals.

A beta version of Financial Focus 2 was launched in early 2011, and over the course of the year the development team was focused on "refining it, to the point where we said it is market ready," Ross relates, adding "it isn't just a pure software exercise. The solution actually integrates with various presentations and videos our marketing group created so that the financial representative has the option of bringing in a case study or someone talking about the impact this product had on them. There was video and audio production involved, beyond pure software development. It allowed us also to consolidate several tools into a single tool, holistic experience."

Using the agile methodology framework, the development team delivered the user interface using pure web technologies (HTML5, CSS and Javascript via jQuery and jQueryMobile). Server-side development uses PHP 5. The package runs in a disconnected sate on agent mobile devices, and can also run as a conventional web application. It also was designed to be packaged into a set of modules suitable for use as a Facebook application and/or a mobile app, Ross reports.

[What Insurers Need to Know Before Adopting Agile Development]

The thin client, HTML approach will enable the tool to be adapted for other parts of the W&S business, he says. "That was our strategy, because we knew it would have applicability to the web, the call center, and as a distribution channel."

Furthermore, the tool "was designed to be 'internationalizable,'" Ross says, adding that already there is demand for a version in Spanish and other languages. "There are requests that have come in to expose certain pieces of this, not just on [the company's] wealth management website but for other [W&S] sites."

Creating this flexibility and extendability was a big challenge, Ross acknowledges. "It's hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all tool," he says. "We knew that going in. Sometimes you might need a broad brush approach working with a client, with others need to get into details. That's where some of the most complex parts of product come in -- it needs to be easy enough to get into in coarse way, without sacrificing some details. That's a tricky balance. It's fun to work on, but it does require some back and forth and iterating on the product."

[Check out this session: IT Is Your Business, Run It Like One at Interop, which runs from September 30 through October 4 in NYC.]

Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & Technology in 1991. In addition to ... View Full Bio

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