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James Watson, Jr., and Beth Kujawski, Doculabs
James Watson, Jr., and Beth Kujawski, Doculabs
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Accelerating Portal Success

Cutting through the hype to find value in your online investment.

The portal landscape is flat. Huge resource investments have been poured into portal initiatives. And yet, the payback is difficult to quantify. To date, portal technology, once touted as a revolution that would change the way the world does business, has yet to rally the troops and march to victory.

Theoretically, portals-personalized online points of access to people, services, content, and applications-have limitless potential. They can link everyone involved in a transaction- companies, partners, and customers-together in ways that save everyone time and money. But the truth of it is, most portal deployments are merely an amalgam of content, and few offer any transactional support, hardly justifying the time and expense spent to create and support them.

In insurance, portals are mostly employed for agents and brokers as a clearinghouse for pricing and product support, or as self-service sites for customers' frequently asked questions. The next stage is creating a customer-facing Web site designed to generate revenue, featuring basic product information, lead management, and answers to questions.

And yet, the possibilities exist for insurance portals to be so much more. So why hasn't the technology been optimized?

There are three reasons. The first, simply put (not that the answer is simple): While it's true that using portal platforms can drive down the cost of the sales process and reduce servicing costs, designing and implementing requires a team effort, and business folks and IT folks aren't on the same page when it comes to portal initiatives. In fact, they're hardly in the same book. The business side wants-and needs-a slew of customer-facing applications to support a broad range of functions, and it wants them all yesterday, regardless of what other functions or business needs may be. The IT camp, on the other hand, has been trying to create standards and leverage investments across business units.

In addition, the decade-long spending spree of the '90s resulted in siloed portal solutions scattered across enterprises without any cohesive approach, and certainly without any long-term plan for unification.

Lastly, we need to recognize that the insurance industry is complex. Consider, for example, the various combinations of distribution, customer types, etc. One of our clients mapped out more than 500 combinations, including pricing, benefits needed and special considerations.

Adding to the complexity: In order to launch a portal without breaking the bank, organizations need back-end integration with line-of-business applications, but many systems are very old and difficult to modify. Lastly, organizations have a need for analytics, metrics, and reporting, such as measuring customer interaction across a variety of systems in order to prioritize marketing and sales investments, as well as filtering information for various constituents such as beneficiaries, underwriting, third-party administrators and reinsurers. But trying to combine a large number of possible client profiles with hardware and software ill-equipped to integrate with this newer technology is risky chemistry, and trying to put analytics on top of it all makes the problem explode.

Why You Want To Do This
Two big reasons: improved customer service efficiency and streamlined application support. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could improve customer service while offsetting expensive processes? You can, but realize that redirecting users to a more cost-effective channel is both art and science. "If you build it, they will come," might have worked for Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams," but the matter of insurance portals is a different ballgame. Before you can provide customers with self-service capabilities, you need to entice them to stop by in the first place. Once you have their attention, you need to make sure that you manage the products in transition, and make sure nothing falls through the cracks, lest the relationship crumbles.

Consider this: One of our clients experienced a 10 percent reduction in call volume by offering a portal. Yet the duration of the calls that did come in increased, because the calls that were made to the call center were more complex. With each portal initiative, insurers will discover a complex set of interdependencies unique to their business. Every portal trail is blazed anew. On this road, there are not followers and leaders; everyone is driving down the road side by side, yet all will end up in a slightly different place.

Portals also provide operational benefits by delivering thinned-down production applications that require less support-less really is more. In order to allow more participation across the supply chain, and lower deployment and support costs, you'll need a common technology denominator.

Portal Functionality

So what should you look for in an insurance portal? We'll tell you:

  • -Common interface for accessing information and applications.

  • -Central point of integration.

  • -Collaborative work environment for knowledge sharing.

  • -Process management and workflow.

  • -Increased security.

  • -Rapid deployment and standards compliance (e.g., XML).

  • -Business user control for flexibility.

  • -Insurance functionality out of the box.

Now that we've told you what you want, it's only fair to tell you that you can't have it all. No single solution excels in all these areas, so you need to prioritize, compromise, and set realistic expectations about this endeavor.

Functionality may vary among vendors, but there are two key themes to consider in your approach to portals: portal personalization and portal integration. Portal personalization allows portals to present contextually significant information to the right user at the right time. There are two sub-areas of personalization: implicit and explicit. Explicit personalization uses known facts, usually information gleaned from a customer profile, to customize the portal. But implicit personalization relies on making inferences based on patterns. It is the more difficult side of personalization, as it relies on a complex array of customer information, market segmentation, product, and temporal issues. It is also the piece that tends to get oversold. The problem is, implicit personalization is dependent on tools and capabilities generally not provided by portal vendors.

The other key consideration in any portal initiative is portal integration. Portal integration methods include point-to-point using gadgets, gears, portlets, etc.; EAI (enterprise application integration); JCA (J2EE connector architecture); proprietary APIs; and Web services. You will likely need to employ several of these technologies in your initiative. Your challenge is to map out how each solution integrates with the others. You may want to hire an outside firm to help you examine your situation objectively.

There are three competing sets of suppliers: infrastructure vendors (e.g., IBM, TIBCO, webMethods, and BEA) offering integration platforms, portal server vendors (e.g., Plumtree, Epi-centric, and Oracle) offering generic out-of-the-box functionality, and vertical line-of-business vendors (e.g., Fiserv, CSC, NaviSys, InSystems, Genelco) offering to extend their solutions. Each group offers varying degrees of both depth of insurance functionality and breadth of portal functionality, (see chart on pg. A9 for the strengths and challenges of different portal technologies).

Looking Ahead
Want to cut to the chase? If we must name names, we'd say, in the sweet spot, offering both impressive depth of insurance functionality as well as adequate breadth of portal functionality, are Oracle, Plumtree, TIBCO, and IBM.

It's becoming apparent that Web services, as a means to compartmentalize functionality, will become a viable method of integration. Process management and workflow will become much more dominant. And the overall portal market will continue to be dominated by J2EE-based solutions, which means that JCA will continue to gain steam as an integration method and be the standard for adopters.

That said, there are some predictions we feel comfortable making about the coming year. To begin with, first-generation portal platforms will likely be replaced or significantly overhauled. The days of independent business unit one-off investments are over. Silo solutions cost too much to support. Centralized IT will regain control and build common portal architectures. Also, small suppliers will no longer be viable and will get acquired.

As you move forward with a insurance portal initiative, think strategically:

  • -First-Plan. View portals as an enterprise-wide solution. Perform a comprehensive needs assessment and take an inventory of what is in place. You'll likely be surprised at what you need and what you already have.

  • -Next-Select. Look closely at support for Web services and other standards and examine vendor viability and commitment. The roadmap you build absolutely must include a supplier who will have the wherewithal to survive a down market.

  • -Last-Optimize. Plan now to integrate point solutions. Centralize your security management infrastructure while delegating other administration to non-IT managers. You'll be best served if you can balance ongoing responsibilities between IT and business with central control.

JAMES WATSON JR. is president and BETH KUJAWSKI is a technical editor at Doculabs, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm that helps organizations plan for, select, and optimize technology for their business strategies.

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