For years, Prudential Financial Services Inc. made Web content available to its customers the way many financial services providers often do-through a comprehensive but indiscriminate packaging of products, services and other miscellaneous corporate data.As Prudential executives examined their Web delivery strategy more closely, they realized that a growing number of customers demanded a Web property designed with their specific needs in mind. So last fall, the Newark, N.J.-based financial services giant embarked on a new program to deliver Web content selectively, and in a customized fashion to reflect user needs.

Prudential recognized the power of Web portals. "A portal enables us to enhance the direct relationship customers are seeking with us, and can better define the various products they own through us," says Mike Mandelbaum, CIO of e-business development for Prudential Financial Services. "If a customer does not have a mutual fund, we wouldn't display data or provide links about those types of products."

This presentation of Web content via user portals stands in stark contrast from other front-end user interfaces that Prudential offers. "We have an intranet site, Inside the Rock, that provides comprehensive Web content for users, with links to 50 different sites, but it's the same 50 links for everyone that visits the site," Mandelbaum explains.

"A portal personalizes content based on the user's needs. It's able to separate the front-end presentation with fewer links and more personalization. The concept really represents a big paradigm shift within our overall IT infrastructure."

Prudential's retail portal has become so popular among its 300,000 policyholders that the company is entertaining the idea of developing additional portals to engage more affiliates, such as employees and brokers.

A New Web Face

Prudential isn't alone in grasping portal presentation. After introducing a business-to-business portal designed for its broker network in October 2000, New York City-based Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield experienced so much success that it launched portals for employer groups, providers and members.

With the portal powering its processing, Empire this summer rolled out a new Web face for its network of hospitals and ancillary facilities. Currently, the 1,500 facilities that contract with Empire can log on to www.empireblue.com and determine patient eligibility and obtain real-time member benefits information, among other things.

"A portal is a convenient, time-saving and cost-efficient way for our facilities to interact with Empire on functions that are performed daily," explains Gloria McCarthy, executive vice president and COO, Empire. "The broker portal gave us a sense of how successful this concept could be: Since late 2000, 6,000 brokers have registered, and so far this year, we've signed up about 1,000 alone. We average 150 new broker registrations a month."

Over the years, many insurers have developed extranet or intranet properties in an effort to provide a greater level of front-end customization for specific user groups.

While operating within this environment has sufficed just fine for many insurers, industry experts emphasize that a portal framework represents a higher plateau of user customization and overall functionality. Migrating to a portal framework also necessitates a higher degree of systems integration work.

With integration in place, insurers insist that launching new products and new applications becomes much easier. Portal users can access a wealth of information based on their various needs. Moreover, the data integration that drives portals fosters reusability of Web content-meaning content displayed on one user portal can easily be applied to other portals.

Although portals raise the stakes on security and user credentialing, insurers say that network security actually can become tighter and more accountable when portals are deployed.

"A surprising number of insurers have found religion when it comes to portal development-it's regarded as the window of the enterprise," says Susan Cournoyer, principal analyst for Stamford, Conn.-based research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. "There's an intense awareness to become more productive, more attentive to business processes. A portal represents business process re-engineering for channel delivery."

"Insurers want to enable a set of core business functions for all their affiliates, be it brokers, customers or call centers," adds Kim Feraday, director of product marketing for Atlanta-based DWL Inc. "The portal is the driver of all this-it provides granular deployment of information to drive business functions."

Taking the plunge

If Web portals have so many inherent advantages, why aren't more insurers taking the plunge? As the portal evolution takes shape, insurers have wrestled with not only if but how to deploy them-as a niche rollout where insurers offer functionality to one user group or across the whole enterprise.

"Most companies like to approach portal development one business at a time," says Gartner's Cournoyer. "Maybe they have a project team with a dozen people involved. They tend to focus on a couple key areas, such as electronic submissions of policies for agents. After a pilot, they might expand it, but for now portal deployment really isn't an enterprise strategy-it's more incremental."

Much like the way they have gone about deploying other automation projects-such as data warehousing-insurers have not always grasped the understanding of how portals fit within the entire enterprise. Building a portal architecture "from the bottom up rather than the top down is essential," says Richard Hoehne, solution executive, financial services sector, IBM Corp. However, many insurers are content to build niche portals, and have not grasped the idea of an enterprise rollout, he adds.

There are exceptions. Empire Blue Cross developed an enterprisewide portal architecture, which made it easier to incorporate new user portals as the occasions arose.

"The first thing we do is ask what portal functionality is going to consist of," says Empire's McCarthy. "We want it to mirror the traditional uses for transactions. To establish that, business users define the most frequent transactional uses for a portal. Once done, we set requirements and hand it off to IS. It's a six- to nine-month process to develop a portal."

Prudential also developed an enterprisewide portal architecture that enables it to roll out additional portals to affiliates fluidly. After establishing business requirements, technical design and quality assurance testing, Prudential's retail portal went live last November. Based on IBM's fourth-generation WebSphere Portal Server, the project took 100 days to complete and is now available to Prudential's 300,000 account holders of life, mutual funds, annuities and property/casualty lines.

Prior to the portal's launch, Prudential policyholders visited www.prudential.com to conduct basic account tasks, such as reallocate funds within a mutual fund. With the portal at their disposal, accountholders have "a content-rich Web offering with an expanded level of transactional capabilities.

"There are tabs that enable users to research financial and retirement planning, market data, portfolio tracking capabilities and more," explains David Kennington, vice president of information systems for Prudential. "We integrated a middleware layer, such as XML or XSL (Extensible Style Language), into the portal environment to enable customers to slice and dice information," he says.

The linchpin of portal delivery, industry observers insist, is conducting back-end data integration across company mainframes-not always an easy undertaking for insurers.

Data Integration

"Over the years, insurers have slowly opened their back-end systems to agents and brokers over the Web. With the advent of user portals, insurers are providing an additional outgrowth of this function, one that fosters easier use of tools and increased access to information," says Matthew Josefowicz, senior analyst for Celent Communications Inc., Boston.

"A portal has to be linked to back-end data systems and there must be a tie-in to all the other servers across the enterprise," explains Gartner's Cournoyer. "A portal can look great on the front-end. But it's only as effective as the data fed into it."

The implementation of middleware enabled Prudential to align its retail portal to multiple core servers and databases across the enterprise. For instance, there had to be an integration layer linking the portal with Prudential's LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) directory.

That's because "LDAP controls entitlements-what a customer can view within the portal," says Mandelbaum. "There's a direct relationship between a customer and the products they own with us-if a customer does not have a mutual fund with us, we would not display any data or links about mutual funds."

Prudential also had to link Vignette, a content management system that collects, maintains and manages Web data, to the portal. Vignette feeds data into the portal based on a particular customers requirements.

Finally, the security piece had to be established, an effort made more imperative since portals raise the stakes on network security and user credentialing. That's because portals provide users with more scale and data access.

Prudential had two options: Establish a separate security protocol for the portal or align it with the company's enterprise security system, known as Get Access. Fortunately, the company was able to carry out the latter rather than the former.

"We did not want customers to have to re-enroll with user IDs and other credentialing, so we added an integration layer between the portal and Get Access," Mandelbaum explains. "But we also had to increase the security effort on the front end. Now, customers who log on to the portal have to respond to six quick inquiries before they can proceed further."

Empire Blue Cross carries out similar procedures to verify user identity. Its member portal, for example, uses state-of-the-art encryption requiring individual members to create unique log-on IDs and password of their own choosing to access their personalized home page, McCarthy adds.

Infancy Stage

With portal penetration still in what IBM's Hoehne calls a "pre-adolescent stage," there is a tremendous amount of expansion to be realized over the next several years for enterprisewide portal deployment. As it is, niche portals have actually become saturated, says Hoehne, so the development of enterprise portals will become the next challenge for insurance companies to confront.

They'll have tools to light the way. IBM deploys "m-ware" to capture the image of an insurer's servers, IBM's Hoehne explains.

"We can install images of these servers in a lab setting so insurers can determine a portal roadmap. Let's say I want to build a portal for my agents, but I don't know what the specific characteristics of it should be. Our Workbench Accelerator can help crystallize the process. In the end, you're able to save two to three weeks of development time."

As insurers conduct their due diligence and line up IT priorities, the benefits of operating within a portal framework might become too powerful to ignore. "Portals provide an architecture that enables us to build new products and new applications faster," says Prudential's Mandelbaum. "It also enables us to build rich metrics on customer tendencies. We can observe what customers are focusing on when they log on to the portal, the portal paths they take, at what point they leave the site and how often they visit. We can collect and analyze this activity."

Ease of doing business with customers and affiliates is another built-in advantage of a portal system. And to help foster that notion, DWL forged an alliance with IBM in July.

The two parties embarked upon an integration initiative to align DWL's Insurance and Customer solutions with IBM's WebSphere Portal Server.

Ultimately, the alignment will create a customer-focused, on-demand workplace that can deliver real-time customer knowledge and transactional business functions, such as customer portfolio and household information, policy and billing inquiry, fund management and claims status, says DWL's Feraday.

"We want users to return to the portal, so we try to do everything we can to encourage ongoing utilization," says Empire Blue Cross' McCarthy.

"We track utilization of each portal. We've seen a steady increase in constituency registration. Our broker and employer portals have seen the fastest-growing registration of all our portals because they are business-to-business portals, which tend to generate more traffic than business-to-consumer."

Empire Blue Cross' physician portal is also winning favor. The portal enables physicians to access eligibility checks, claims submissions and real-time claims adjudication.

Its provider and member portals, meanwhile, use Web collaboration, a technology that enables multiple parties to work together over the Internet.

Collaboration fosters the sharing of Web pages, forms, applications or voice calls using a Web browser.

"With our 'click-to-talk' technology, (developed in conjunction with San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems), a member or provider can click on a telephone icon that appears on every screen, insert a phone number and receive live help from an Empire representative within 15 seconds," explains McCarthy. "Our CSRs can actually 'take over' the user's cursor and help navigate the site, if necessary."

To date, Empire Blue Cross has 4,000 employers registered on the employer portal, and in 2003 alone added 2,000 to the portal network. There are 300,000 members enrolled within the Empire network, with the company registering about 10,000 member-users a month.

To some industry observers, the shift to portals has many advantages, but at the end of the day, the growth of the concept is contingent on one key factor.

"It's been difficult for insurers to remove themselves from the legacy system mentality," DWL's Feraday says. "Insurers that are examining the portal framework have to ask themselves, 'how is this easier than the green-screen environment I've been living in?' Once they adopt the portal framework, they'll be able to see how."

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