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Portals are becoming far more than a gateway through which users are provided electronic access to the enterprise. For the innovative insurer, portals are becoming the place beyond the gateway. They will become the device that enables the user–be it employee, customer or partner–to participate in e-business on demand.

Today, many insurers use portals to allow an agent or insured to access basic information and static functions like checking a claim status or, in some instances, paying a bill. The portal may not always be available, but this is okay, since there are relatively few time-critical business transactions being conducted that require 24/7 availability.

However, we are now seeing innovative insurance companies leveraging portals in a new way–by allowing agents and insureds to become a much more dynamic part of the business process. Some users are able to execute business processes on demand, at any time, from any place–issuing certificates of insurance, issuing their own policies or settling their own claims.

Consider what airlines are allowing. Airlines are encouraging passengers to become part of the business process by checking themselves via the Internet and kiosks. This provides convenience to the traveler while reducing expense for the airline.

If an airline can do this, why cant an insurer let an insured, claimant or agent into their business processes to self-issue a policy, self-settle certain types of claims or self-issue certificates of insurance?

As little as two years ago, such a vision was rare and certainly unobtainable. However, advances in processing power, the emergence of open standards, improvements in security, and affordable bandwidth now make it possible to respond to this growing demand and expectation for such services.

The emergence of e-business on demand is changing the roles of insurer, agent and insured. Agent disintermediation, a topic of debate since the mid-90s, remains an issue. Does the portal represent the final blow to the agent? Probably not. Agents will still provide a valuable service to a significant segment of the market.

In fact, portal technology could narrow the expense gap between direct and agent-based writers. Carriers using agents will be able to push internal processes to the agent saving time and expense, while at the same time helping agents be more valuable to their customers. Additionally, the aggregating power of the portal will allow consumer, agent and carrier to work together in a more seamless, collaborative business model.

An obvious portal benefit is the increased corporate reach to customers accompanied by shareholder gains by allowing customers and agents to execute some of the business processes directly, at any time, from anywhere, on any service or product. Portals become a foundation to create a “dynamic workplace” that enables improved employee effectiveness and productivity. Portals will be the standard way in which the enterprise delivers business function, information, and interaction between internal and external users.

Finally, there is a reduction in cost and risk due to improved and faster decision making, better management of assets, and creation of a single, integrated e-business on demand platform.

Given these benefits, how do we enable such a portal vision? First, we need to consider the portal as an element of infrastructure. We cannot afford the investment and operating overhead of building stand-alone approaches for each solution. Leverage is critical and the integration cost of connecting silo portals is high.

Second, we need to ensure that the portal infrastructure is scalable. As the user base grows–including both internal and external users–we must be absolutely certain the infrastructure can handle the load. When external users become process participants, loss of availability moves from being just an inconvenience, to loss of business and loss of brand.

Third, we need to ensure that the portal is as secure as possible for every user. This is a showstopper issue. As much as employees, partners, and customers demand the convenience of e-business solutions and being able to conduct more business online, the demand for security and privacy is even greater. A lack of privacy or a portal susceptible to hacker attacks wont just hurt usage; it can seriously damage the insurers reputation and crucial brand image.

Fourth, the portal infrastructure needs to be open. Conformance to the open standards for designing, developing, and integrating business applications, functions, data, and collaboration is essential. Without openness, we cannot tie in internal and external users across the enterprise or the marketplace.

Finally, it needs to be flexible. The infrastructure must support multiple channels (Web, phone, voice, wireless, etc.), collaboration (instant messaging, team rooms, chat), and both internal and external users. There should not be separate platforms for each function, each channel and each class of users.

For the innovative insurer, portals can radically change traditional business processes. Be thoughtful in selecting your infrastructure and innovative in how you apply it and both you and your customers will benefit.

is e-infrastructure manager for IBM Global Insurance Industry, based in Atlanta.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, March 3, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.