As user expectations for Web-based support continued to rise, Cincinnati-based Ohio National Financial Services (ONFS; $22.6 billion in total assets) knew its homegrown producer extranet site, ON-Net, was becoming obsolete. But the insurer wanted to go beyond building a better mousetrap and automate manual content management processes. "IT was the site maintenance middleman for our existing extranet," explains Don Flannery, IT head. "Therefore, the labor-intensive updates were infrequent and the resulting exposure had become unacceptable." A cross-departmental team began the search for a solution in late 2002, and the list of possible vendors was whittled down to six by mid-2003, Flannery relates. "Of those, Vignette [Austin, Texas] offered an integrated portal and content management package with the range of functionality and ease of deployment we wanted. This included permissioning users and targeting content to present only relevant and timely material," he says.
An end-user advisory and beta-testing panel, composed of producers and their back-office staff, was established in late 2003. "Involving our field force was critical," Flannery says. "For instance, we discovered that properly accommodating agent support staff required creating an entirely separate user classification."
To facilitate growth, a fully redundant IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) server farm was purchased and deployed in early 2004. "It uses IBM's WebSphere as the extranet platform, which permits interaction with our legacy IBM zSeries mainframe for access to policy and client data," says Flannery. While ONFS developers built the site, all content — existing and proposed — received a full legal, compliance and corporate communications review, Flannery adds. A training system for content authors was also developed.
Beta testing started in 2005, and in August of that year a universal launch was attempted. But, "We discovered an incompatibility between the dual-processor IBM servers running the Sun Microsystems [Santa Clara, Calif.] LDAP software and the Microsoft [Redmond, Wash.] Windows Server 2003 operating environment running hyperthreading," says Flannery. "The work-around was disabling one of the processors in the hardware and disabling hyperthreading in Windows." Fortunately, the original ON-Net extranet site had continued operating in parallel, making the glitch transparent to users. Still, the IBM/Sun/Windows incompatibility experience resulted in a phased rollout, which was completed by Nov. 30, 2006.
Since the rollout, revenues and efficiencies have soared while exposure has plummeted. "We've seen a phenomenal ... growth in sales," says Flannery. "Although site content has increased 40 percent, to nearly 10,000 discrete items, there are so many efficiencies that we're only using a quarter of the original 150GB content storage capacity. Plus, we haven't needed to add any business or technical staff to support all the growth."
If there's a downside, it's in metadata and analytics. "No vendor seems to have a user-friendly metadata classifications system, so this functionality is mostly unused at present," concedes Flannery. "We'd also like analytical tools beyond site visit reports."
But these imperfections are minor, notes Flannery. "We're not only upgrading to Vignette's next version but also planning deployment of its capabilities enterprisewide," he says.
Anne Rawland Gabriel is a technology writer and marketing communications consultant based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Among other projects, she's a regular contributor to UBM Tech's Bank Systems & Technology, Insurance & Technology and Wall Street & Technology ... View Full Bio