By Y. Shyam Kumar, Wipro Technologies
Nobody within an insurance enterprise fondly recalls the time when the business had to depend entirely on IT to make any changes to an application. Happily, vendors have had considerable success developing business-friendly applications that have given business users tremendous flexibility to make at least some kinds of changes-thus significantly reducing their dependency on IT. The question on the minds of senior executives now is whether there are now or will soon be any solutions on the market that will enable them to completely eliminate the involvement in IT in changes they need to implement in order to quickly meet the requirements of the marketplace.The Challenge: Can Involvement of IT be eliminated?
This question actually arose in a conversation I had recently with some senior executives of a leading P&C company. The carrier had recently built an e-commerce portal with a combination of SOA enablers such as ESB (enterprise service bus), business process orchestration, business rules engine and other management tools. They had successfully implemented modern technology concepts such as exception-based underwriting, straight-through processing etc., to enable customers to purchase personal lines auto and home policies directly on the Web without any intervention from the underwriters.
While the portal is up-and-running to the executives' satisfaction, they have one more channel in which they seek to market their products. That channel typically involves integrating with various corporate affinity group partners in order to extend e-commerce capabilities to them. The partner in turn is able to white-label the carrier's products, selling them under the affinity group name. Typically they offer more or less the same products to all the corporate partners, with minor customizations to meet the partner specific requirements. In order to set up the integration with the partner, the carrier addresses various concerns at the proposal stage regarding menus, logos, graphics, discounts they offer to that particular partner, commissions they pay to the partner etc., as these tend to be the things that vary from one e-commerce partner to another.
Currently whenever the carrier enters into a new partnership, its IT team takes around two to three months to make the required customization, since the IT department strictly follows the software development lifecycle (SDLC) before the application goes live. This dependence on IT costs the carrier significantly in both money and time, both of which impact on its ability to seize a particular business opportunity.
In their conversation with me, they asked whether business could manage such transitions independently by using a dialogue manager tools (aka administrative control panel), allowing the business user to enter, delete and edit the required table entries. Once the entries were completed in the dialogue manager-they theorized-a "generation" process could be activated to create the new executable code for test and/or production. With this capability, the carrier could customize its existing e-commerce portal in weeks rather than months, and without the cost and inconvenience of having to rely on IT.
Findings: Progress Can Be Made, Some IT Involvement Still Required
For the time being, completely eliminating IT from the process isn't possible, but some of my contacts' ambitions can be realized by using following procedure:
• Define dynamic user interface (UI) rules within a rules engine;
• Define the object model to be exchanged between the portal and the rules engine containing all possible parameters for driving dynamic content for the screens in question;
• Create a table to store UI metadata and define rows in the table for each screen attribute and its metadata - as the application runs, it will read the metadata for all the attributes for a particular page and trigger rules that correspond to those attributes.
Using this approach, dynamic UIs can be built for the most changeable screens, such as ones that include information such as eligibility or vehicle and driver information. That gives the business freedom to do things such as add, change or delete questions; alter effective and expiration dates; define new answers; and change data types and rules for answers.
This won't take my partners to the Nirvana of complete independence from IT: business users will be only be able to alter questions within the operational data store (ODS) table - any other field changes will require table changes that can only be done by IT. Similarly, customizing Portal functionality for channels still needs to be done through standard portal design techniques that IT will need to do.
In short, the business can typically carve out more control from existing capabilities, given a close relationship with IT and a clear idea of the desired functionality. That's something, at least; and as business colleagues continue to demand more control, capabilities will continue to be developed to push the envelope of business control of technology applications.
Y. Shyam Kumar has over 15 years of executive consulting experience with large North American insurance carriers in the areas of business architecture, business process reengineering, operations efficiency and business development. His opinions expressed in this piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Wipro.The question on the minds of senior executives now is whether there are now or will soon be any solutions on the market that will enable them to completely eliminate the involvement in IT in changes they need to implement in order to quickly meet the requirements of the marketplace.