Whether she is implementing corporate policies to attract and retain skilled technical employees or conceiving better ways to use technology to deliver service to customers, Andrea Anania believes that a business-first approach serves her well.

"I am not a true technologist," she says. "I have a solid grounding in technology, but I always approach it from the perspective of how we can serve our customers.

"I always wanted to be at the intersection of customer service and technology," Anania adds, which is exactly where she is today as chief information officer and senior vice president of Cigna Corp. a Philadelphia-based provider of employee benefits with consolidated assets of $95.3 billion and 1999 revenues of $18.8 billion.

It was her desire to deliver better service that made Anania an early champion of electronic commerce-at a time when few others understood the necessity of such a shift. Her colleagues credit her with convincing her peers at Cigna Corp., at a critical time, that e-commerce was indeed crucial to the company's success.

Anania is a "visionary leader," says Michael Bell, president of Cigna Group Insurance, a subsidiary of Cigna Corp., who has worked closely with her in various capacities since 1997. He was one of the many skeptics in the mid-1990s when Anania-as the divisional IT officer for Cigna's retirement services division-began to push for investment in e-commerce.

Bringing customers online

Back then, customers enrolled in Cigna-administered 401(k) plans were able to check their balances and make transfers from fund to fund on a daily basis by telephone using interactive voice recognition technology. Anania pushed hard to develop Internet Java-based technology as a front end into Cigna's 401(k) processing system, which would enable customers to perform the same transactions online.

"With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that we would have lost a fair amount of business if we had not listened to Andrea," Bell says. "The 401(k) market quickly moved to a point where it was expected that an administrator would have those capabilities."

Anania also cites the company's decision to follow her lead in implementing the first online customer access as an important event in her career and for Cigna. "That was really a competitive watershed for the company," she says. "You either could or could not, and we definitely could. It has helped to grow the business and retain customers."

"Andrea's approach is visionary," says Robert Randell, vice president of Cap Gemini Ernst & Young in Hartford, Conn. "She doesn't view a problem as broken pieces that need to be fixed. Instead, she takes a global view."

An integrated approach

Anania's decision to move away from a business-group focus and organize her IT staff into practice groups is a prime example of her integrated approach, says Randell, who has worked as a consultant with Anania's IT organization for more than two years.

After becoming corporate CIO in 1998 and watching each business unit rapidly develop its own e- commerce strategies, Anania realized the company needed a different approach.

"We did not want to manage resources business unit by business unit," she says. Instead, when a technical investment was needed, Anania's goal was to focus on building consistent infrastructure, architecture and individual components that could be shared effectively. She wanted to build elements of the system only once-such as virtual private networking systems and e-mail routing-that shouldn't be duplicated in different business units.

To that end, Anania set up three practice groups in the areas of applications management, e- commerce, and technology and architecture. Each group has its own manager who is charged with being a proactive developer of business solutions for the business units.

The practice groups "transcend organizational boundaries," Anania says, which enables her staff to move in a very fluid manner to the newest, most complicated projects that require their skills.

Measuring managers

This strategy has been a boon to employee retention, especially in the area of e-commerce, Anania says. "These people will solve the technical problems on a project and then leave (the company) if we don't give them new challenges."

Anania credits the practice groups with providing better service and increased employee satisfaction. But her management style deserves a great deal of the credit for employee satisfaction, says Kathleen Taylor, a Cigna senior vice president who reports to Anania.

Not only does Anania strive to recognize staff members who are working hard, but she is constantly finding ways to encourage her senior managers to do the same. She even implemented an initiative in early 2000 requiring her senior systems executives to meet with some of their up-and-coming direct reports-- perhaps for lunch or dinner-"to get to know them and make them feel wanted," Taylor says.

Workers want "a diversity and richness of experience" and "to be coached and developed and given the right management experience," Anania says.

Therefore, she aims to provide her managers with the tools and training they need to be better managers, and then holds them accountable for how they are developing their own workers.

As an incentive, subordinates rank their managers on set objectives and provide feedback, which becomes part of the manager's annual review. If managers are below par in their people-development skills, they can't receive 100% of their bonus. "That really drives behavior changes-I can tell you," Anania says.

Career management

"People initiatives" are important to Anania, and she's particularly proud of one of them. Cigna is replacing ad hoc IT training with a formalized training and career management program through the Cigna Technology Institute, which will be launched in March.

In response to concerns employees expressed about improving the working environment, Cigna will now provide its 2,900 employees in the IT organization with the knowledge they need to advance.

A task force is assembling career maps, which detail the formal training and on-the-job experience necessary for each IT job category. The IT staff will be able to determine where they are with their careers, where they want to go and how to get there, Anania explains.

The Institute also will change how the company's technical employees are trained. Currently, most training is delivered through classroom instruction, but by the first quarter of 2001, the company's goal is to deliver 70% of the classes through the Internet.

"We are very flexible in our work schedules, so we have to be flexible in our training schedules as well," Anania says.

In addition to the benefits to employees, Anania expects the new training and career management program to provide more effective results. She predicts pass rates will rise by 10% while the cost per course will drop by 50%. Overall IT training costs will not drop, however, since any savings gleaned will be invested in Anania' ramped-up training efforts.

Since the mid-1990s when Anania was the champion of providing the first online access for Cigna customers, e-commerce has remained a key initiative for her. As a result, many of Cigna's current and future IT projects have an e-commerce component.

E-commerce in the future

"Our objective is to be the leading employee benefits provider," Bell says of his business unit. To reach that goal, he works closely with Anania.

In the life and accident business, employers increasingly are giving their employees choices in their benefit plans-both to reduce costs and to shift benefit administration to insurance companies. "As a result, employers are giving us greater access to their employees," Bell says.

"We have to get employees excited about our products. It doesn't really work to send packets of paper home with them any more," he says. "Internet-based eligibility and enrollment systems are crucial if we are going to connect with the employees we'd like to market our products to."

This is where Anania's department picks up the ball, Bell adds. "Long before I took this job, Andrea recognized that e-commerce capabilities are a key component in this area," he says.

E-commerce projects for Bell's business unit center primarily on Internet-enabled self-service delivery, Anania says. Improving online access to retirement account balances, provider directories and benefit enrollment guides are the kinds initiatives that are important to be successful, Anania says. And Cigna will be rolling out those kinds of services over the next 15 months.

Future projects for the IT organization will also include devoting resources toward information management. "We have information stored in so many places and are looking into ways to mine data and present it in a meaningful way," Anania says. "We need a repository strategy that makes sense," she says. "We handle 20 million transactions a day, and we store a lot of data. Being able to access that data intelligently is a challenge." n

Sara Harty is a freelance writer based in Grayslake, Ill.

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