When insurance companies explore implementation of top-of-the-line mobile computing solutions, many concede that laptop is technology no longer on their short list for consideration.Once regarded as a viable option for conducting business remotely, laptops lost ground to other hand-held options, such as Web-enabled wireless phones, two-way pagers and Personal Digital Assistants (PDA).

But while laptops may no longer represent the pinnacle of mobile computing technology, they continue to churn out new business within a modest but essential niche.

A new generation of laptop technology is one explanation for carrier interest in this device, but so is the premium that most property and casualty carriers have placed on claims management.

Claims Mandate

Settling claims quickly is an understood mandate, and laptops are proving to be the best application for field adjusters to expedite a claim. Using a laptop, an adjuster can create reports at the scene of an accident or catastrophe and download the information to a branch office or claims service center.

That was precisely what Branchville, N.J-based Selective Insurance Group had in mind when it rolled out a new mobile claims management program. Concluding that laptops were the ideal application for optimizing claims management, Selective furnished laptops to its network of 150 field claims adjusters who work out of their homes. Executing the program across its six U.S. branch offices, Selective christened the program in February 2001 and deemed it fully operational by the following September.

Selective Insurance Group, a holding company for five property/casualty companies, conducts business through approximately 850 independent agents in 20 Eastern and Midwest states. The majority of the business is concentrated on the small to medium-sized businesses-light industry and public entities represent 80% of the company's insurance operations.

Implemented in phases, the selection of laptops was an easy decision for Selective's executives.

"When we decided two years ago to embark upon our Mobile Claims System, laptops were the most practical application for our field adjusters," says Deb Wilber, vice president, e-business for Selective Insurance. "PDA's and wireless phones serve an important function, but in the context of this program, laptops were our best option."

Over the years, Selective's adjusters would arrive on the scene of an accident or a catastrophe armed with yellow legal pads and writing utensils to collect data-or they'd use a laptop on site to enter their notes in a Word document.

"Under the manual processing of data, when adjusters were in the field, they would take copious notes in the field, re-key or cut and paste the data when they returned to their home offices and then transmit the data into one of our claims data bases," Wilber adds. "With the Mobile Claims System in place, we've probably removed two to three hours of redundant processing for every claim an adjuster is assigned to."

Laptop Legacy

Industry experts concur that Selective's selection of laptops is consistent with what many other P&C carriers are pursuing.

As carriers place a greater emphasis on claims efficiency in order to retain customers, laptops deployed for claims processing must be flexible, possess ample storage capacity and have dynamic features that can enhance workflow.

On top of that, units must be designed as lightweight and portable as possible. When working in the field, lugging around a heavy laptop has proven counterproductive.

"There are so many variables that come into focus when considering a mobile computing strategy," says Brad Adrian, senior analyst for Stamford, Conn.-based e-business consulting firm Gartner Inc.

Some carriers have become consumed with hand-held devices, but Adrian points out that while this may be true "there is an array of technology issues to address before carriers can justify capital spending for PDAs. This industry is still very much PC-centric, which bodes well for laptop developers."

In performing its due diligence, Selective Insurance certainly placed an emphasis on what the program would cost, but not at the expense of performance factors such as speed, ergomonics and functionality.

Investing in new laptops for all 150 of the field adjusters-regardless of whether they had an existing machine or not-Selective closely examined the characteristics of three laptop models in late 2000, prior to the initial launch. The units explored were developed by Dell Computer Co., IBM Corp. and Toshiba.

Selective rated all three models using various criteria for both form and functionality.

In the end, Dells's Latitude CS with a Pentium II processor and 128 megabytes of RAM got the nod.

"The Dell units were lighter, sleeker and many of our adjusters preferred the touch pad feature of the units to the eraser mouse equipped on the others," explains Christina Dickson, assistant vice president, information technology services (ITS), claims and billing.

Dell units were lighter, Dickson says, because they featured a detachable CD-ROM mechanism while the laptops designed by the other two manufacturers had built-in CD-ROM utilities. This in turn made the machines heavier.

Prior to adopting the system, Selective Insurance had to lay the program's groundwork. This effort, which started in 2000, began with the integration of its claims processing systems.

Selective adjusters, through a single entry, could now upload and download policy data automatically fed through its Oracle databases.

When adjusters arrive on the scene of a claim, they enter a policy number to obtain instant access to customer data, or a snapshot of the account, listing policy limits, deductibles and other exceptions.

Data Integration

Selective's task in developing its mobile claims system was primarily conducted in-house. But the insurer formed a partnership with Atlanta-based XcelleNet Inc., a provider of data integration solutions for the mobile and wireless environment, to handle program maintenance.

In working with XcelleNet, Selective is operating a software module marketed as Afaria, which manages mission-critical applications and data on mobile devices such as laptops, PocketPCs, Palm Handhelds, RIM BlackBerrys and Symbian smart phones.

Afaria enables businesses to deploy and maintain software applications, synchronize content and data, track hardware and software device assets, maintain desired configuration settings and back-up critical business data from a central location.

Any time that Selective makes a modification within its claims data bases, Afaria distributes the instructions systemwide. Adjusters can then individually update their units by using a menu on the laptop, and the modification is automatically updated on their hard drive.

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