Technology upgrades are often characterized by cautious experimentation and taking relative baby steps-especially among insurers.National Grange Mutual Insurance Co. (also known as Main Street America Group) has certainly weathered its fair share of technology trends. Founded in 1923, the Keene, N.H.-based company has established a portfolio worth more than $500 million in premium through its network of 1,100 independent agents. The property and casualty insurer serves the East Coast from Maine to Florida.
Marty Haas, systems application manager with MSA, describes the carrier's target market as small towns and small businesses (hence the "Main Street" name). These clients may not be in the Fortune 500, but that does not mean MSA is not thinking of better ways to serve customers-and its agents.
For years, agents either mailed or faxed any policy changes they made to MSA's data center. Not only was this process time-consuming, but it was quite error-prone. "The whole trend is to get to the Web," says Haas. "It's a way to lower our costs and give additional services to our agents."
MSA's first foray into Web-enablement came in 2001 when the carrier implemented screenscraping technology.
This was before the insurer teamed with Stillwater, Okla.-based HostBridge Technology. The software company's CEO and founder, Russ Teubner, explains how MSA's initial Web solution functioned. "The technology runs on a server and creates the appearance to the mainframe of lots of terminals. It uses screenscraping to integrate with the existing program." Screenscraping produces a static representation of data, so although this method was an improvement over the insurer's paper procedure, it proved a bit inflexible to agents.
MSA worked with the technology available at the time and converted its automobile policy change processing system to the new method.
"We started with auto (instead of homeowners) because it has the highest volume and we could get the biggest payback from it," says Haas. "Auto receives four times more policy change requests than our homeowners policies."
The Next Step
MSA executives were aware that solution providers offered different means for performing legacy-to-Web integration, but the insurer took a wait-and-see approach.
However, when MSA decided to upgrade its system supporting homeowners insurance, it called on HostBridge. HostBridge provides software designed to help organizations integrate mainframe applications with other types of applications.
HostBridge uses Extensible Markup Language (XML), Teubner explains, so that end-users aren't working with static data; XML presents editable information that can be manipulated with relative ease.
The software resides in the client's mainframe in the CICS environment and "allows us to exploit the features of CICS to create a tighter linkage to the target application," Teubner explains. "We transform existing CICS applications into Web services."
Here's how HostBridge works. On the front-end is MSA's Web server. When data needs to be updated, a message is sent to HostBridge on the mainframe. HostBridge intercepts the flow of information and presents it to the agent as an XML document.
HostBridge works with just about any platform, Teubner notes, whether it is IBM Corp.'s WebSphere or Microsoft Corp.'s .NET. For MSA, WebSphere was the application of choice.
Another large component of the system involves the use of Java applications. MSA had to provide this particular element itself. Haas says the company took several people and sent them to eight weeks of training to learn the intricacies of Java, XML and WebSphere.
MSA has its own team of technicians who were able to develop Java-based applications to interface with agents on the browser. WebSphere manages the execution of the Java applications.
To access the system, agents need to sign in with a user name and password. HostBridge does not handle authentication. Instead, MSA hired a local technology firm to provide security for its new homeowners policy system. The HostBridge software only receives requests from the system once they have been cleared by the authentication protocols of the other components.
A New Look
When MSA's agents sign in, they're greeted by something that is far removed from the old green screen.
Teubner says the software separates the business logic (such as computing a premium) and the presentation logic (what the end-user sees). The graphical element is left for the HostBridge customer to decide. It can be a simple HTML interface or a more sophisticated Java set up as is found on the MSA system.
MSA did not want to go overboard with graphics; although the company wanted the interface to be pleasant to look at, it was more important not to bog down the system with a complex design.
After releasing the new homeowners system to its agents in April, MSA says the response has been overwhelming.
Although most changes can be made in real-time, at this point, the more complicated requests remain in MSA's mainframe until the end of the day when it does its batch processing. This limitation has nothing to do with HostBridge, the insurer says, but is just a function of MSA's current policy administration system. A complete real-time solution is the company's ultimate goal.
Be that as it may, the HostBridge software is a definite step up from MSA's previous legacy-to-Web configuration. Response time is a bit faster, says Haas, but the real benefits are in the system's accuracy, flexibility and its intuitive interface.
"It used to be that when we changed something we'd go out to our agents, have a day of training and leave them with a huge manual," Haas recalls. "This way is so much better."
Since HostBridge was installed by MSA, Haas claims there are no bugs in the system. "We just kind of forget about HostBridge because it works so well."
Now, MSA agents are asking when the automobile policy system will be moved to HostBridge. Haas says eventually that will occur, but no firm date has been set for the conversion. For now, agents still use the screen scraping system for auto claims.
The insurer plans to make at least two more releases of the system, each one improving on its predecessors. At press time, a system upgrade was expected to roll out around Labor Day and will contain the ability to process all homeowners endorsements, in addition to dwelling information, coverages and addresses.
The third release is slated for October and will include processing for inland marine policies.
From start to finish, MSA's Web conversion took approximately seven months. Both companies declined to disclose exact figures on the cost of the upgrade, but Teubner says on average, a carrier of similar size should expect to pay around $85,000 for the HostBridge software licensing fee and 20% of that cost annually. This subscription fee includes maintenance and support.
Despite any bumps along the way, system conversions usually prove to be well worth the temporary pain in the end. "The insurance industry has to go this way," asserts Haas. "We like to think we're pretty out in front when compared to our competition."
Maria Bruno Britz is a freelance writer based in St. Marys, Ga.
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