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Reporting for Duty

With a focus on cultivating its employees, Minnesota Life has remained innovative while supporting growth.

Advisors probably won't insult your mother and it's not likely that they'll reduce a grown man to tears, but Minnesota Life's ($21 billion in assets) four-month training program-which focuses on priming newly recruited college grads for the rigors of an aggressive IT shop-could be mistaken for a boot camp. Full-time training, which takes place in a classroom, one-on-one with advisors and in small group demonstrations, is designed to get trainees prepped for the raging battle for market share. But don't get the wrong idea about the training conditions for the new hires. The 123-year-old, St. Paul-based financial services firm recently made its eighth appearance on Computerworld's "Best Places to Work in IT" list, when it was ranked 22 in 2003.

And although its position on the list was earned as a result of excellence in disciplines including company benefits and retention, a typical day for IT personnel isn't exactly a walk in the park. Vice president and CIO Jean Delaney Nelson supports a demanding agenda. "Minnesota Life takes on the acquisition of new business aggressively," she contends. In the past year alone IT personnel have supported the carrier's annuity growth through the implementation of a new annuity administration system, in addition to implementing a new individual life product. The IT group has also managed to help Minnesota Life maintain its lead in the mortgage marketplace by Web-enabling support functions and working towards implementation of a new mortgage product.

Taking on New Business

On top of all that, in November 2003 the insurer's IT group contended with an additional 800 plans, 40,000 participants and $570 million in assets when Minnesota Life's business unit-Securian Retirement Services-acquired a large chunk of 401(k) retirement plans from Pan-American Life Insurance Company (New Orleans).

Although the deal added 55 jobs to the carrier, don't expect to find many Minnesota Life managerial career opportunities posted on your next job search. The insurance carrier concentrates its resources on hiring entry-level IT personnel and cultivates them into its own management teams in-house. Currently 19 percent of its existing staff have been promoted.

In addition to the entry-level training, the professional growth process at Minnesota Life is fostered by the insurer's training and development department, which gears continuing education opportunities toward its more seasoned IT employees. Depending on an individual's area of expertise and the available resources, training can take place internally at the carrier's own training facility-which occupies a full floor in its St. Paul corporate headquarters. The facility is equipped with PCs with LAN connections. And if an employee's training needs cannot be met internally, it will be provided externally for two weeks on an annual basis. So far, Minnesota Life's cultivation strategy seems to be working.

Although the insurer's 400-member IT team is charged with support of multiple business units and subsidiaries-including Individual Financial Security, Financial Services, Group Insurance, Retirement Services, Asset Management and Securian Financial Services-it is able to remain innovative while supporting aggressive growth. For example, most recently the carrier underwent a computer telephony integration (CTI) project when it implemented Interactive Intelligence, Inc.'s (Indianapolis) Customer Interaction Center in its group life insurance unit.

"We brought together the computer with telephone lines to provide e-mail queuing and online [Web chat] assistance," explains Delaney Nelson. "This enables clients to access assistance via a call or through the Internet." The system is especially convenient for policyholders who are having trouble serving themselves on Minnesota Life's Web site, It allows policyholders to strike up a live Web chat and receive a response immediately, while navigating through different Web pages, relates Delaney Nelson. According to the IT executive, group members are equipped with 24x7 access to Web-based products, and they can also enroll online.

Although the CTI project has vastly improved efficiency for both the call center and consumers, Delaney Nelson concedes that not everyone who had been supporting Minnesota Life's previous call center was able to adjust to the enhanced technological capability. "There are unique skills involved in communicating in real time," says Delaney Nelson of the changeover's effect on call center reps.

And if Minnesota Life's recently implemented voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) project proves to be successful, call center reps can expect more of the same. Delaney Nelson explains that the carrier has recently installed an Avaya (Basking Ridge, N.J.) 8300 phone system between its home office and data center. "This technology has the advantage of more advanced call routing capabilities," Delaney Nelson explains. "As we open branch offices, we want to incorporate [VoIP}. It allows us to drop voice lines for savings."

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