AS/400, Insurance & the Internet
By: Bob Cancilla
Title: AS/400 Internet Practioner
Date: 11/09/1998 - 04:37 PM (UCT)
Conducting Business via an AS/400 on the Internet
I work for a major insurance company. This company was recently challenged by deregulation and open competitive pricing in its specialty market segment. It was forced to re-invent itself and examine every aspect of how it conducted business.
Three years ago, I was asked to investigate Internet based systems to determine what if anything could be gained by utilizing the Internet. This article describes the results. I apologize in advance, but the systems we have developed are proprietary and offer the company a significant competitive advantage so I can't provide you with links to the website.
What I can provide is a real world example of a company that uses the Internet to do a lot more than publish an informational website or provide a simple e-commerce storefront on the web.
Classes of User
The first thing we did was segment our potential audiences into classes of user and identify the services we might be able to provide them. We identified the following groups of users:
- Independent Insurance Agencies
- The General Public
Our initial focus was on our customer, the Independent Insurance Agency. We examined virtually every aspect of our interaction between the company and our agents. A commercial insurance companies primary business partner and marketing channel is its independent agents.
We met with our agents to determine their needs, problems, and tried to determine what would motivate them (other than the lowest price) to do business with us instead of our competitors.
We found that the cost of doing business was almost as important as the price that we offered. We found that the time required to collect information and produce a price quote was a critical factor. We found that the ability to provide the agent with information about the claims on a policy and billing were important factors in developing our partnership relationship. We also found that the ability for the agent to contact the proper person in our organization and obtain information as required was extremely important.
Our First Website
Our first website was NOT a general information website, it was an e-Business website specifically targeting our independent agents. This website provided point in time access to policy information and claims information for its policies. It provided billing information. We also provided information on insurance applications being processed by our underwriting department, including e-mail access to our marketing and underwriting personnel.
Our data was readily available on our AS/400's where we had developed our line of business applications over the past 30 years. We discovered IBM's Net.Data macro language and at the time I/Net, Inc.'s Commerce Server/400 Web Server who at the time was the best web server in the market place and remains an excellent server today.
We acquired a model 40S AS/400 that we used as our server machine in front of our production model 530/2153-production processor. We used Net.Data's internal SQL capabilities running on the 40S to access production data on the 530 and develop dynamic HTML displays of the data that our independent agents told us they needed to see on a regular basis.
Many of our agents told us that they liked to manipulate the data and produce their own reports under their logo and letterhead that they in turn could deliver to their policyholders which we insured. We provided the agents with the ability to download data to their PC's in comma separated value files. They download this data and produce their own reports.
As part of the development effort, we built a self-administration security system. We used a combination of web server authentication and security files to validate a user's access to the web site.
One of the links into our agency web site is a link marked "Register". This directory accesses an authenticated directory where the user is asked to provide a user-id and password by the web server. This is a generic user-id and password very much like those seen on major ISP's when you begin the registration process. We deliver to the agency the registration user-id and password plus a special "authentication code" generated when the agency requests access to the web site.
When the user logs in via the registration process, they are asked for their authentication code and their company provided agency number. They must pass both tests. When these tests are passed, they are allowed to complete a registration form providing information about themselves and selecting their own user-id's and passwords.
The person who registers first becomes what we call the "managing" user. This person may add, change, or remove other members of their firm to the system without involvement on the Insurance Company side.
The system checks the status of the agency to insure that the agency is currently authorized to do business with the company. If this status changes, a message is displayed asking them to contact their marketing representative.
The agency side of the system continues to grow. We have implemented procedures to capture enhancement requests from the agents and route them through our Sr. Vice President of Marketing and implement these changes on request. Most new features take one or two days to implement, rarely have they taken more than a week.
The company is working on electronic price quotes and looking at completely automated underwriting where an agent can enter a policy application and obtain not only a price but a decision from the company to issue the policy.
The company is also developing a system that will display ADOBE Acrobat files containing the policies and endorsements produced by the company (using AFP/DS on the AS/400) and delivering these via the web site.
A similar system was developed for our policyholders. Some agents want the company to provide access for their policyholders via the company's website to policy, claims, and billing information. Since the company insures businesses, the security administration is identical to that provided for the agents. An agency requests that we grant access to a policyholder and we generate an authentication code. We give this information to the agency who assists the policyholder with the registration process.
We finally decided that we had to have a public website. We did so for the reason that many companies build them, namely everyone else has one. We went a little further than most however. We created a screen show using captured html pages from our private agency and policyholder web sites and put them on the public web site as a demonstration of what was available to agencies and policyholders that did business with us.
The company also elected to publish its safety bulletin's and safety posters on this web site. Giving away this information provided value to visitors of the web site and sent a strong message to the competition.
Once we deployed our agency, policyholder, and public web sites, we were asked to look at the needs of our marketing organization. Marketing consists of most of the senior executives in the company and a staff of field marketing representatives that visit our agencies on a regular basis.
We developed a combination transaction processing, decision support system that assisted the field marketing representatives schedule their calls on agencies and captured competitive information. The system provides our employees with information about the agencies that we do business with including production and profitability. Since our underwriting departments interface with our producers they were given access to this information. Senior management wanted high level analytical facilities to monitor the marketing effort and productivity and profitability of our agencies.
This system allows marketing and underwriting personnel to record information about the agencies that the company does business with and build a marketing information database which includes competitive information obtained from the field.
This has been an on-going development effort. HTML forms, Net.Data macros and a few RPG programs called by the Net.Data macros form the basis for this web site. The success of this site has been incredible and caused the IS organization to shift to a browser based interface for all new internal systems. The system is an extra-net based system (both internal and external access). The company is buying and deploying IBM Network Stations internally to replace 5250 terminals and old 386 and 286 based personal computers wherever possible. It is the company's goal to have a browser and terminal emulator on every desk in the company by the year 2000.
E-Mail and Document Processing
The company recently made a decision to standardize on Lotus Domino for e-mail and processing of forms and unstructured data. We are looking at moving a PC based form letter application to Domino that takes advantage of its ability to access AS/400 data as well as develop customized form letters and other forms dynamically.
Domino will phase out the company's current dependency on OfficeVision/400 and provide users with a single standardized interface including browser based access to internal documents and mail.
The company uses many vendors and contract services to provide processing services in states or territories where the company does not have offices. These service companies use a standard Internet connection and Client Access/400 to connect to the company, login and perform their required processing. This simple 5250 emulation with printing support via the Internet has saved the company literally thousands of dollars per month in communications and support costs.
The AS/400 Made it Possible
All of this is made possible via standardization on our existing AS/400's plus the addition of one additional AS/400 that acts as our server. We did not have to bring in new technology or expertise into the organization. We did have to learn HTML and Net.Data (a very simple macro language). We were able to utilize our existing data and even more important our existing human resources.
Our Internet is totally reliable. The server never fails. The only time the web server machine is down is when we take it off-line for upgrades. While there can be no doubt that the Internet introduces a learning curve, it is an extension of existing AS/400 skills and not completely new and separate technology.
All of our software is bundled into OS/400 with the exception of two vendor products that we use. We do not have to worry about layers and layers of software or running a database on one machine with one set of software, a web server on another with other software, etc. The support costs of an AS/400 are extremely low. You will probably be able to deploy AS/400 Internet based applications with no increase in staff .
I was speaking with a senior IBM staff member the other day who told me that support of transaction processing via the Internet and the AS/400 is the goal of the AS/400 division. Well, I'm here to tell you they have achieved that goal all ready, they just forgot to tell us about it.
Web based systems coupled with Domino's processing of unstructured data offer the company new opportunities to migrate to state of the art systems that are deployed in record time frames. We have found that systems can be deployed in a fraction of the time or traditionally developed systems. We find that we can acquire components (often free software available on the web) at very low cost and integrate features such as dynamic business graphics, and sophisticated statistical analysis into our applications.
The multi-media capabilities of this technology open new windows of opportunity that make possible anything that the systems users can imagine. Actually, it opens possibilities that we have yet to imagine.
IBM has been introducing some new and exciting technology, namely WebSphere and JAVA Servlets. This technology is exciting and offers tremendous potential for server side transaction processing.
This insurance company is extremely fortunate to have a visionary CIO who has convinced the company's management team to allow us to explore new technologies and methods of delivering business solutions. This commitment to R&D very well may be the company's key to success, along with AS/400.