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Insurers Advance on the ECM Ideal

By stressing context over content, next-generation insurance enterprise content management (ECM) solutions transparently and efficiently access information from disparate source systems.

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) suggests a kind of dream state for an insurance company wherein all types of content can circulate easily throughout the enterprise, powered by an ECM system enabling the right users to obtain complete and accurate information any time they need it, drawing from both structured and unstructured data sources. Such a dream promises to improve product development, underwriting, claims processing, customer service, fraud prevention and more.

But the reality of ECM is otherwise, as most senior technology executives would admit, and many "ECM" systems are simply glorified document management systems. Such solutions, however, are not to be despised, provided they do what they promise. Many content management systems do extend across the enterprise, if only for limited purposes, as one content system among several in a company's systems portfolio. These systems are beginning to provide an enterprise hub for subordinate content systems and can conceivably be linked in larger federations of systems, driving further toward a genuine enterprise content circulatory system.

Insurers are in various stages of the advance to such an end state. But the imperative to move in the right direction is strong, and carriers are, in fact, acting. In its most recent report on the subject, Boston-based Celent called document management a key issue for insurers. "Every step of the insurance product life cycle," according to the study, "from product definition through distribution, underwriting, service and claims, relies on the creation and handling of internal and external documents."

Citing other Celent research, the document management report adds that more than half of the respondents to the firm's CIO survey were either in progress or actively considering document management initiatives. Further, "Document management deals outpaced nearly all other areas in terms of number of deals closed," according to Celent.

Within any operational area -- marketing, sales, underwriting, policy issuance, service, etc. -- content management improvements are a vital component of strategic improvements, according to Gartner (Stamford, Conn.) research VP Kimberly Harris-Ferrante. "[Insurers] need to be smart enterprises, which means delivering real-time content that is consistent and accurate across the enterprise," she comments. "As we are moving into strategic types of initiatives -- such as multichannel integration, where the concept is that all channels need the same look and feel -- having one centralized enterprise content management system is going to be essential."

Despite the ease with which both vendors and their customers bandy about the ECM moniker, however, what many companies are doing would more accurately be called CM, according to Harris-Ferrante. "We need to put the 'E' back into ECM," she quips.

Still, the failure to live up to the terminology is not for lack of viable solutions, in Harris-Ferrante's opinion. Vendor products capable of enterprise reach often end up within single lines of business due to procurement patterns and a lack of enterprise information philosophy and governance, she asserts. "The problem with ECM is not the supply, the vendor market; it's more the lack of strategies, the lack of understanding of the importance of ECM on the part of the insurance company leadership or the siloed structure of how they make buying decisions," Harris-Ferrante says. Also, she adds, ECM gets put on the back burner, owing to the priority given to core system investments in policy administration and claims, for example.

Nevertheless, insurers find themselves confronted with a growing array of content types, both structured and unstructured, that are awakening them to the need for enterprise content solutions. As they pursue new ways of selling products -- as they drive changes in self-service over the Internet and execute similar types of strategic innovation in the insurance value chain -- they realize the need to implement solutions to better store and retrieve their ever-growing and increasingly diverse content.

The mantra of ECM suggests the possibility of a single master platform for content management, but that is unlikely to be the case, according to Andy Warzecha, director of strategy for IBM's (Armonk, N.Y.) Information Management division. "The reality today is that insurance organizations still do have multiple [content] repositories and that will continue -- there will not be just one place to go to get all of your unstructured information," he says. "It is much more likely that we will see technologies that allow you to federate across the different repositories you may have, regardless of what they are."

The situation might be compared to the legacy modernization conundrum, in which a CIO has to contemplate the relative merits of the risky rip-and-replace option versus an approach that allows the company to continue to leverage existing assets. Given what insurers are attempting to deliver through their emerging business strategies -- which require a single view of information related to customers, distributors and claims, etc. -- the ability to make content available across multiple content channels is critical, Warzecha affirms. And given the state of content management already in place within carriers, he says, "The state of ECM in the insurance industry is increasingly about pulling across multiple content silos to get an accurate view."

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

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