This is the third in a series of INNovators Award Winners.
Technology acquisition in insurance companies usually goes something like this: A department sees a need to improve its processes. Someone from the department hunkers down with IT to hammer out a list of requirements for a system that will fill the need. Committees are formed to find systems that meet those requirements, they create a short list of possible systems, and vendors are called to show off their products.

At Mutual of Omaha, things work a little differently. About a decade ago, the Omaha, Neb.-based insurer formed its Strategic Technology Development Division. "It's a matrixed organization," says George Royce, the vice president who heads the division. "There's a project team that includes project managers. There are engineering resources. And we partner with the different units that are in either individual financial services or group benefit services."

Often, the division's projects are driven by needs identified by Mutual of Omaha "business partners"—the company's business units. But sometimes the solution is identified first. "Some of our projects are driven by a monitoring tool we call the technology opportunity index," Royce explains. "It's a process of looking at a technology and deciding when it might be right for us." When the technology looks ripe, Royce's division runs a pilot and matches the technology to the company's business requirements.

A few years ago, xPression, a suite of content management tools from Document Sciences, Carlsbad, Calif., made it onto the index and began looking like a promising technology. There were a number of potential applications for xPression and strategic technology development after a pilot implementation deemed it ready for use.

Priorities for new technologies are "driven to a great extent by our business partners," Royce says. "We suggest those technologies, but they are looking for systems that can make a major difference with a business problem that they're trying to solve." Mutual of Omaha's group sales department had just such a problem.

PUTTING THEORY INTO PRACTICE

The sales department decided it was time to reengineer its entire sales process. One part of the redesign was the way individual salespeople wrote proposals. The existing system involved Microsoft Word documents, along with some complicated Word macros.

A typical proposal might take two or three days to create, start to finish. "This was very cumbersome and very labor-intensive," Royce recalls. "The macros were hard to manage and maintain, and the skill set required to maintain these complex macros-tied in with Excel and other desktop tools-was becoming a real problem for the end users."

XPression looked like a good solution to the sales department's problem. "We were very pleased with some other rule-driven systems that we had been using, and we were impressed with the xPression technology, since it seemed to follow that same pattern of being rule- and data-driven." Further, the xPression suite incorporated up-to-date standards, such as Web Services, XML and J2EE, while some competing products did not.

Royce and his business counterpart sponsored the project, aided by a group of project managers and an IT manager. Members of Document Sciences' professional services team, the firm's IT outsourcing subsidiary, helped with the implementation, and an outside consultant helped with content and look and feel.

With xPression as the core technology, the team used the suite's APIs to build a Web-based system that gives its group sales people, located in 26 different offices, access to central, pre-approved proposal content. At the same time, it leaves them with flexibility to personalize proposals for individual prospects. The proposals can be printed locally by the sales people, or centrally in batch mode at the home office.

MEETING CHALLENGES

Implementation took about eight months and, though there were some challenges along the way, Information Services Manager Jody Kriegler shrugs them off as the usual hitches that show up with new deployments. "This was the very first time we'd ever had any exposure to xPression," she says. "We had some difficulty integrating our system with xPression, and with user interface development. Some of that was new to us. We had a few challenges from the standpoint of being able to rearrange the text, but we worked through them. We received support from Document Sciences in that regard.

"There was a real focus on being able to customize these proposals, at least to an extent," continues Kriegler. "We wrote a front end to the xPression piece that enabled that customization. They could pick and choose paragraphs and change the order of the paragraphs; there was an area where they could write some level of free-form text so they could customize the first page." But most of the text is standardized, Kriegler continues, to reflect Mutual of Omaha policy, and to make the proposals consistent.

A "significant" training effort followed implementation, according to Kriegler, with team members visiting some major offices to teach users the new system and explain why the changes were necessary.

The reception in the field was very positive, she says.

Since it was part of a larger project, isolating returns on the xPression-based proposal-writing system is difficult, Kriegler says. The quality of the proposals has improved and that, she adds, has helped reinforce the Mutual of Omaha brand. Sales people are convinced that the ability to customize proposals-again, within a limited range-has made those proposals more competitive. And, typical proposal generation time fell from two or three days to two or three hours, she says.

Royce notes that the company looked at an alternative for creating proposals, an ASP, and compared its cost to the cost of using xPression in-house. "We felt that we had, at most, a two-year payback" on the xPression investment, he says.

FUTURE PLANS

With more than 4,600 employees, $4.2 billion in annual revenues and over $19 billion in total assets, Mutual of Omaha is a large carrier, and there are always plenty of new projects for the Strategic Technology Development Division. Among them, at various stages of progress, are several that involve xPression.

"We have a correspondence system that's going into customer acceptance testing," says Royce. "It uses xPression to generate correspondence for our customers, and replaces some Visual Basic applications." Adds Kriegler, "In addition to the proposals, there was some group insurance activity now in first release in the field. We've got a smaller application that generates policies. We have a fairly significant materials management endeavor that's underway, and xPression will be part of that. The list goes on and on."

Insurance Networking News received a number of entries for its 2007 INNovators Award, a special designation intended to advance the spread of business technology acumen in the insurance industry. Their innovation was required to have been in production long enough to have returned demonstrable, tangible results.A panel of distinguished insurance industry experts, including industry analysts, consultants and members of the INN Board of Advisers, selected the winner from the nominees chosen by INN readers.

Below is a list of the winners. Look for their stories in upcoming issues of INN.

* First Place: CUNA Mutual Group, Madison, Wis.

(Mumbai, India-based MajescoMastek provided consulting services.)

* Second Place: Mutual of Omaha, Omaha, Neb.

(Document Sciences, Carlsbad, Calif., provided the document management system.)

* Third Place: XL Insurance, New York, N.Y.

(Chicago-based CS Stars provided support in the development of data transformation processes and edits to support the data needs of XL Insurance's book of complex, often customized programs.)

* Honorable Mention #1: Midwest Insurance, Springfield, Ill.

(Through its acquisition of InsureWorx, Fiserv Insurance Solutions, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, provided the PowerComp software, and HTC Global Services, Troy, Mich., provided policy administration software and implementation services.)

* Honorable Mention #2: Insurance.com, Solon, Ohio

(Acxiom Corp., Little Rock, Ark., acted as vendor, consultant and business partner to a project that improved the quoting process.)

* Honorable Mention #3: Genworth Financial, Richmond, Va.

(Document Sciences, Carlsbad, Calif., provided software and services that enabled the company to standardize its customer communications onto one platform.)

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