For a fraternal organization working to provide insurance products to more than 1.8 million members, it makes sense to enable dedicated agents to maximize time with members through a robust mobile solution.
Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL, Appleton, WI) equipped its 1,850 agents with IBM (Armonk, NY) ThinkPad 600E laptops and moved to electronic forms in 1998. Those innovations were further supported internally by the implementation of a virtual private network (VPN) the following year. Externally, the organization used a DOS-based messaging system run by a third party in order to move business-critical information to and from its field representatives.
Single Point of Failure
The messaging solution worked, but AAL's IT organization was aware it carried a certain vulnerability. "We recognized that we had one point for failure," says Al Vetting, project manager. "Ninety percent of our applications come in to AAL electronically, so if we were to lose that provider we would have been out of business or would have had to revert to our paper application process."
The previous implementation of the VPN gave AAL the added incentive of eliminating what amounted to redundancy, according to Vetting. "In reality we had two networks," he says. "Wewanted to maximize our VPN investment and felt we could put a lot more traffic on it."
In search of a centralized mobile management solution, AAL invited a variety of vendors to submit RFPs. After narrowing the field, two or three candidates were asked to demonstrate their capabilities at AAL. "We asked them to come and do a test drive, installing their software on our test servers to see how it functioned in our environment," Vetting relates. The trial winner was Atlanta, Georgia-based XcelleNet's Afaria browser-based mobile device management solution. "Our primary criterion was the file transfer capabilities, more than systems management functionality," Vetting says.
Acceptance of the Afaria solution in June 2000 was followed by a "road map" exercise to acquaint XcelleNet's staff with AAL's business functions. "We have about 29 different information sources that we move to field representatives or they send to the home office," Vetting explains. By year's end, AAL had Afaria working with a limited subset of those sources and installed on all of its field reps' laptops, says Vetting.
Afaria runs whenever an agent connects to the VPN, usually by a dial-up modem, which triggers Afaria to start in "silent mode." The home office then pushes out information such as policy values, rates, updated electronic forms and customer data, and pulls in information, such as completed electronic applications, supply orders and updated customer information, from the agent's laptop.
"A nice thing about Afaria is that it remembers the drop-off point if a transmission is lost," Vetting says. "And if the agent says, 'OK, I'm done with the Internet,' Afaria will remember where the transmission stopped and will later pick it up where it left off."
Afaria also probes to see what a particular agent has or has not received, enabling AAL to "send down only the pages that need to be sent down to that individual," Vetting says. "So someone who connects every day would have very few pages to send down on a daily update," compared to someone who logged on only once a week. By June 2001 all AAL's messaging was running over the VPN, backed up by proprietary servers with disaster recovery back-up. The old DOS-based network was completely dismantled, saving AAL about $750,000 a year, says Vetting.
Systems Management Benefits
Having sought the solution for its file transfer capabilities, Vetting says, "in the future we're going to really look at leveraging the systems management functions." But significant savings have already been achieved in that area. In the past, all software updates were distributed through costly mailings of CDs or diskettes. "We know that if we use Afaria and avoid sending out a CD or other release, we will saveat a minimummailing costs and duplication fees of about $30,000 a clip."
Case Study Closeup
COMPANY: Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL), Appleton, WI, $31.5 billion in assets.
LINES OF BUSINESS: Life, health, long-term care, disability, annuities and mutual funds.
VENDOR/TECHNOLOGY: XcelleNet's (Atlanta, Georgia) Afaria mobile management solution.
THE CHALLENGE: Leverage VPN for field-force communications.
Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio