While most insurers have yet to fully grasp the opportunities offered by social networks from a customer-facing perspective, many have made strides recently in realizing the benefits of social networking in a business-to-business setting. For example, a year ago CSC launched WikonnecT, a business-to-business social network, to its property and casualty client base.
The site is designed for CSC's insurance company customers, complete with user profiles and various groups that are organized by project or product. It features extensive Web 2.0 content, including blogs, photostreams, RSS feeds, commenting and rating capabilities, forums, online chat, and instant messaging. Built on a Sun Microsystems (Santa Clara, Calif.) infrastructure, WikonnecT lets CSC insurance clients keep up to date on product announcements, provide feedback to CSC and collaborate with other insurers. Introduced at the vendor's annual Connect Conference for P&C clients in September 2008, WikonnecT has grown from 1,000 initial users — many of whom signed up at the conference — to 8,000 current members, according to CSC. Roughly 700 carriers are represented on WikonnecT and are active in more than 100 communities, the Falls Church, Va.-based vendor reports. And in August CSC announced that it has extended access to the WikonnecT site to its life and annuity insurance customer base.
"By opening the WikonnecT social networking community to our life and annuity clients, we are continuing to foster strong peer-to-peer client networks and are hearing positive feedback," Mike W. Risley, president of the life and annuity division with CSC's financial services group, said in a press release announcing the expansion.
Brad Rall, senior programmer analyst at Bridgeton, N.J.-based Cumberland Insurance ($322 million in admitted 2007 assets), says he first learned of WikonnecT at the CSC Connect event. An active member of a CSC technology working group for the vendor's Point In policy administration system for small to mid-size P&C carriers, Rall previously used online forums set up by CSC to collaborate with others in the group.
According to Rall, the working group uses WikonnecT, first and foremost, as a forum. "Any user or customer can go out and post a topic out in the forum," he details. "They can post any issue they have or any question for other customers. As opposed to sending an e-mail out to 30 different companies and interrupting everybody's day, this gives us a place where we can go out, make a post and then other customers, at their leisure, can review what was written, respond to that question or issue, and explain maybe how they solved a problem."
Benefits of Collaboration
Cumberland has realized direct benefits from using WikonnecT, Rall reports. Recently, he relates, the carrier began work on building a two-way bridge between Media View, a Point In subsystem, and ImageRight, a document management and workflow solution from Conyers, Ga.-based Vertafore. Many other companies also use the same subsystems, Rall says, so he posted a comment on WikonnecT looking for other carriers that had completed a similar integration.
"Immediately I got a response back from another [CSC] customer who had subscribed to the forum," Rall recalls, adding that a CSC programmer also responded to the query. "[The other carrier] was in the process of the very same [project] that we were talking about doing. They were in the testing phase, so we were able to pick up the phone at that point and have a conversation about it."
While Rall is still in discussions with the other carrier, he says the collaboration already has paid off. "The biggest thing is learning that it's not a difficult [project]. The solution that they used to bridge the two is something we could do pretty quickly," Rall explains, adding that his discussion with other carrier source has helped Cumberland simplify its approach. "If it works for them, maybe we'll try the same thing. Maybe a big project that might have taken six to nine months may [now] be a couple weeks to set up."
Rall notes that there is a high level of collaboration between Point In users. "One of the reasons why is that we are small to mid-size insurance companies," he explains. "We don't have large IT staffs like some of the bigger carriers do. So we're reliant on other resources. We don't have all the expertise in-house."
Breaking Down Walls
In many ways, Rall suggests, it is counterproductive to consider carriers within the community as competitors. "Small to mid-size companies can't put up walls," he says. "You really have to collaborate and connect with other customers and other companies to do the things that you don't always have the capabilities to do in-house."
According to Rall, some of Cumberland's employees are more comfortable using and exploring WikonnecT than others. Sometimes, he relates, that distinction can be seen along generational lines, but that is not always the case. "Younger people, generally, feel more comfortable using WikonnecT, and it might be because of their experience with Facebook or MySpace," Rall comments. "They're comfortable making posts out on the Internet, and they've seen the benefits of doing that in a social setting. It's not necessarily age-related, but more so their experience working on the Internet."
As public social networks become more mainstream, Rall opines, he expects an increasing number of Cumberland employees to join the WikonnecT community and understand how it can be leveraged. "We're seeing a greater level of adoption of the site within our own company, and I'm sure other carriers are experiencing the same thing," he says.