With a 124-year track record, St. Paul-based Minnesota Life ($23 billion in assets under management) could be forgiven for resting on its laurels. But with what Vice President and CIO Jean Delaney Nelson calls a "technologically innovative management team," the insurer continually looks for ways to lead selective markets. Case in point - the recent overhaul of its call center into a contact center that integrates voice, e-mail and live text messaging using computer telephony integration (CTI).
Jean Delaney Nelson, vice president and CIO, Minnesota Life
I&T: What were some of the challenges Minnesota Life faced in moving to a computer telephony integration solution? Any advice for CIOs considering similar projects?
Delaney Nelson: Technology integration was not difficult. However, the cultural issues of moving from a traditional call center to a CTI call center were major. The same people who effectively deal with a phone conversation may not be able to effectively deal with the phone ringing, interactive conversations via live text messaging and e-mails coming at them from the same workstation. You need to evaluate staff and match people's skills to the requirements of the job and perhaps redeploy people to other areas. We also learned that it is very important to involve call center employees in the design and implementation of a CTI project.
Another issue that you have to address is availability. CTI is a new technology and requires a complex infrastructure that connects a number of services, such as SQL databases, e-mail servers, recording servers, backup servers and the like. CTI does not have the same level of reliability as a traditional phone PBX. You need to manage the expectation that there may be less than 99.999 percent availability.
I&T: How do the call center reps handle so much information coming at them at once?
Nelson: The CTI software routes incoming phone calls, e-mails and text messages based on rep availability. For example, if a rep is on the phone, the system may route an e-mail to them rather than another call. It wouldn't route a text message if the rep was on the phone, since text messaging requires an instant response.
E-mails are answered when there is a lag in real-time work. To help speed up e-mail response time, we've scripted the responses to a fair number of questions specific to the particular customer. For example, some of our client customers call their employees "employees," and some call them "associates" - the e-mail contains the right terminology for the customer.
The people in our call centers seem to really get fired up and think it's fun since they are not just answering the phone.
I&T: Your CTI initiative is an example of Minnesota Life's innovation. How else do you use technology for competitive advantage?
Nelson: We make a choice of whether to lead, match or trail a bit in technology based on the specific market and then re-evaluate those decisions on a regular basis. For example, in the group life insurance market, we have chosen to lead and are frequently the first insurer to offer new Web servicing technologies because we feel it gives us a competitive advantage. In the 401(k) market, we match the industry relative to technology used for consumer servicing via the Web, but we've chosen to be a little bit ahead of the marketplace in terms of the Web services we provide to the plan sponsors.
I&T: Does your choice to lead, match or trail your competition in technology influence your decision to build or buy key applications?
Nelson: It varies by area, but our general philosophy is that if we can buy it and tailor it, we will. Our group life insurance products are very unique in that we customize what we sell to very large client companies. We're very service-oriented in the group marketplace and have not found a purchase package that gives us the flexibility that we've been able to build into our own software.
Developing all our group applications in-house gives us competitive advantage during the sales proposal process, and we've been told by clients that one reason they chose Minnesota Life is due to our Web technology that makes it easier for employers to administrate our solution. However, in the individual marketplace, we've purchased systems such as annuities administration and client management.
I&T: How do you as CIO handle the dichotomy between working for a company that was founded in 1880 yet consistently ranks as a top technology leader?
Nelson: I don't see a correlation between the age of the company and how technologically innovative it is. Whether or not you are innovative as a company is more a reflection of your management philosophy - and our management philosophy is to be very technically innovative.
I&T: Has that philosophy changed over the 25 years that you have been with the company?
Nelson: Yes, it's changed dramatically. When I started with the organization as a programmer, IT was perceived more as a corporate service and was buried within the organization. Over the years, we've become a strategic partner, which is reflected in a number of ways. Today, as CIO, I sit on the corporate development council, which is the group headed by the CEO and business heads.
I&T: You've been investigating wireless and handheld devices for some time. How close are you to deploying these devices?
Nelson: We are completing a three-month pilot of wireless devices across all divisions of the company where we focused on testing e-mail, calendaring and contact list functionality. The results are overwhelmingly positive, and we anticipate moving from pilot mode to production in 2005. Our first users will be a combination of marketing associates and executives with high travel demands. One of the functions that we found very important during the pilot was the ability to respond to both e-mail and voice mail from a single device, and that is impacting which device or devices we will standardize on.
I&T: What challenges will you face in deploying wireless devices?
Nelson: Security is number one, but another challenge is how to support remote devices. How do we help someone when they are on the road? We have our help desk, but what do we do when we physically have to touch the device? Coverage limitations are also a concern. Since these devices work off cellular coverage, any carrier will have coverage limitations, and we need to work through those issues. The final challenge is providing applications beyond just e-mail, calendaring and contact lists.
I&T: What is the most challenging aspect of your job as CIO?
Nelson: The rapidly changing environment relative to technology, staffing and efficiency. All three are in constant change, and I need to be proactive and responsive. Let's just say that it's never a dull day.