Feature: Aetna Relieves Paper Burden with Intranet

Swamped with new information and employees, Aetna Life Insurance Company of Canada needed a way to better orchestrate its communications.

The Toronto-based organization was growing at a frantic pace in its sales force divisions and by acquiring other companies and business units. Instead of turning to a client/server-based communications infrastructure as originally planned, in May 1996 Aetna saw more benefits in building a TCP/IP-based intranet.

Pat Smith, Aetna's senior vice-president of corporate resource services, said the company saw the growth in Internet use and noted that technologies such as firewalls, certification and gateways were being developed.

"Our confidence increased," Smith said. "We knew whatever tools we put in place required us to think about communication ... Why should we set up internal-only company e-mail, when we can set it up so we can mail internally as well as to the world at large?"

So the decision was made to create Aetna Live, an intranet designed to facilitate better company communication and simplify many exhaustive paper-pushing procedures. The intranet meant all company desktops had to be upgraded to at least 586s with 32M bytes of RAM to handle the Netscape Communications Corp. software and Aetna Live functionality. Aetna currently employs 1,200 people in main offices in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, and has 32 additional offices nation-wide.

Aetna Live was built and is continually altered according to recommendations from employees and business partners who have access through an extranet.

"We tried everything in-house before rolling it out to the corporation," Smith said. "We practiced on ourselves." These early practice sessions initiated back-and-forth discussions with users that helped shape the final result in each instance, Smith explained.

The intranet has improved both the quality and flow of information throughout the company in addition to saving money, so the upgrades have been worth the cost and hassle, according to Smith. "Because we're not as large as some of the bigger insurance companies ... maintaining a low cost structure is very important to us."

But Smith said the costs associated with setting up the intranet were recouped in its first year of existence, a sentiment echoed by other Aetna employees.

Because shared information such as employee benefit booklets are now printed on the intranet, the company "saved lots of money by not having to print hundreds of glossy booklets," said Larry Penn, Aetna's business systems integrator.

On-line information also means it can be updated easily and frequently, said Debbie Coughlin, director of compensation in Aetna's Human Resources (HR) department. "We used to dread updating our employee manual and only did it every two years. Now it's done constantly."

Smith added that all of the information for in-company matters as well as insurance products is now kept consistent. "It's always current ... there's no danger of someone accidentally pulling out an old policy manual."

In June, Aetna ran a survey on the intranet to gauge user happiness. With 160 respondents (a 15-per-cent response rate), the survey showed that 92 per cent of employees feel they receive enough information about news and events at Aetna, and 81 per cent find the Intranet Home Site to be very informative.

For example, the HR department has improved its productivity because employees are given the ability to manage and track much of their personal information right on the intranet. Every employee has an employee number and a self-chosen PIN that gives them access to their records. Managers can access their own records as well as those of employees under them.

Employees can dial into the Netscape proxy server and access the intranet from home or on the road using Aetna-granted digital certificates and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) 128-bit encryption. Penn said this allows new employees to dial in and set up their benefits and other personal information even before they start working.

Coughlin said with Aetna's growth, the flow of new people into the company would have meant many long hours of tedious paper-pushing in the HR department. But with Aetna Live, Coughlin's department is able to process information more quickly and easily, and users seem to have an easier, more relaxed time of setting themselves up at Aetna.

"We used to get hundreds of calls from people asking now many vacation days they have left. Now they can look it up themselves," she said.

While an employee's individual records are kept private, other information, such as a business unit's overall attendance record, is posted and regularly updated on the intranet for all to see.

"We had to think about what does and doesn't have to be for management eyes only," Coughlin said, noting that increased availability of such information has replaced rumors and speculation with facts that everyone can access. For example, the salary ranges for most positions are posted, so employees have a better idea of what promotions or internal job changes they might wish to pursue.

Employees all start off with the same introductory screen using Netscape, and from there can select what area they'd like to go to from pull-down menus or their own bookmarks. The sites are designed by each business unit's Web publisher, but Penn said anyone in the company can suggest a new site to be created.

"Probably the publisher would tell them to go ahead and set up the HTML document themselves ... it's not that hard, and with Word 97 they can save a file as HTML automatically," Penn said, adding that the employee can then either give the publisher the file to be put on the intranet, or can be given access to a specific network directory to which they can copy the file to publish and later update it themselves.

None of the intranet is directly accessible on the Internet save for a few mirrored information sites such as job listings. Partners access the extranet and intranet through private pipes set up on the public Internet, Smith said.

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