Insurance professionals repeatedly hear from media, conference presenters and their own IT colleagues that they need to act now to take advantage of the great benefits available with a service-oriented architecture.

Insurers are told that SOA is important, that it’s the next big thing to dramatically improve how they conduct business, and that they will lose to their competitors if they don’t embrace SOA.

Are these points regarding the value of an SOA approach compelling to insurance professionals? Probably not.

Few insurance professionals spend much time considering their company’s software architecture. They are more concerned about what tools and information they need to best perform their jobs.

Can they access the data they need, when they need it, in the format they want, as quickly as possible? The value of an SOA approach lies at the intersection of insurance professionals’ business concerns and their company’s software architecture.

Insurers track and manage vital information across a number of departments.

–The quoting department collects the initial information about a potential customer and their insurance needs.

–The underwriting department uncovers all of the necessary details to effectively assess a customer’s risk and value as an investment.

–The claims department maintains their own store of information regarding how a customer has used their company’s products and policies in response to a natural disaster, car accident or medical need.

But what happens when the insurance company wants to see information on a specific customer or group of customers from all of these departments?

Managing this complex collection of data and delivering the right information to the right people at the right time is exactly the sort of business challenge an SOA-based approach can help.

Today, many insurance companies still house information in disparate business systems, preventing cross-departmental data sharing via an insurer’s software infrastructure and applications. This creates an inefficient environment of manual and paper-based processes, making a seemingly simple task hinge on whether or not the right person is in the office to provide the data or report needed to make a decision.

With an SOA-based approach, insurance professionals gain simplified access to the data they need–when they need it–in order to do their jobs.

There is a huge gap in efficiency between many of the information-gathering and decision-making methods insurers use today and the methods available via an SOA-based approach. Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1: Sit at your desk and open one software application on your computer. View all the information you need from your company’s core business systems in one place. Take action immediately.

Scenario 2: Sit at your desk and open multiple applications on your computer. Format and print various reports. Ask a colleague to send you information that you can’t access directly. Cobble together and analyze the printed reports with the emails or verbal conversations you’ve had with colleagues. Make your decision.

Scenario 1 looks pretty good, right? The efficiency and productivity illustrated in this example is completely possible with an SOA approach.

Given all the potential benefits, an SOA approach is definitely worth considering. However, it is not an approach a company can decide to pursue, implement and then–voila!–transform itself into a fully operational, SOA-enabled organization.

An SOA approach is a journey, and the SOA environment continues to evolve, innovate and grow. Software vendors and the companies they serve continue to make applications more interoperable via Web services to free the data residing in disparate business systems. And they continue to make information more accessible and actionable to employees across an organization from the CEO to insurance agents, underwriters and claims processors.

What insurers can do now, though, is think about what efficiency and productivity improvements they would like to achieve company-wide.

–Who needs access to what information and when?

–How would those employees prefer to access, view and manipulate that data?

The answers to these questions will enable insurers to determine if an SOA approach is the right strategy to drive their company’s efficiency and productivity objectives.

If an insurer decides an SOA approach can help their organization, they should begin the journey by analyzing their existing software infrastructure and applications. Where does information live across the system? How can various systems “talk” to each other and share information? What additional software investments need to be made, if any, in the existing software infrastructure and applications to achieve these goals?

An SOA approach has the potential to bring insurers great value in terms of efficiency and productivity. With SOA-enabled business applications, insurance companies of all sizes can enhance data access to drive timely decision-making for their employees and customers. Now is the time for insurers to evaluate their business needs and software infrastructure to determine if an SOA approach is right for them.

Bob Peterson is director of Industry Marketing, Financial Services, for Lawson Software. He can be reached at Robert.Peterson@us.lawson.com. Pramod Mathur is the director of Product Management for Lawson Software. He can be reached at Pramod.Mathur@us.lawson.com