The spreadsheet is a shining example of how information technology can make onerous tasks simple. But the spreadsheet turns out also to be an emblem of the limits of technology.
Within insurance companies that spend millions of dollars annually on technology, programs such as Microsoft Excel and Lotus Notes help proliferate informal business applications. The programs may solve problems for their enterprising users, but, in turn, they create an enterprisewide problem: the generation of information outside a company's operational realm of data. These rogue applications are significant not for the problems they create, however, but as a symptom of an even greater problem - IT's inability to provide timely and effective solutions to the business. But, as insurers progress in the adoption of service-oriented architectures (SOAs) and business-rules technologies, IT's ability to deliver enterprisewide solutions is improving.
The application development process has been a vortex of frustration, failure and delay largely because it has forced professionals of vastly different disciplines to communicate with incommensurate terminologies and mind-sets. Business people of various stripes have been required to understand the capabilities of technology, and technologists have been required to master business processes. Of course, some degree of interpenetration of the camps is desirable, but the prevalence of less-than-optimal project delivery suggests that less business/IT interaction actually may produce better results.
One of the greatest issues is time. "The biggest problem with software development projects is that you can never analyze enough - at some point, you have to actually build something," says Jon Bobalik, industry principal, SAP (Newtown Square, Pa.). "The challenge is to be able to react during the development process to a business that keeps moving."
The advantage of SOA is that by externalizing functionality into reusable components and organizing them into a logical framework, it minimizes two of the greatest causes of delay - the need for exhaustive communication between the business and IT, and the need for IT to write code. In a sense, the benefits of automation solve the age-old problem of poor communication between IT and the business - by having the two camps communicate less, not more. The result is a new, more efficient division of labor.
As the functional power of applications is liberated from the traditional black-box paradigm, IT professionals are focused on the more technical challenges associated with standardizing and organizing application functionality, according to Bobalik. Under the service-oriented paradigm, "The idea of application development splits apart," he describes. "IT is concerned with providing services, but the specific bundling into what we would think of as an application has been shifting to the business users."
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