Insurers look at wireless technology, but with caution

Some insurance industry IT managers who attended this week's LOMA Emerging Technology Conference here said they have set their sights on wireless devices that they hope could help reduce claims processing time and paperwork.

But they added that their companies have yet to fully embrace wireless technology because of insufficient network infrastructures and a lack of mature tools. A better business case for the use of wireless communications needs to be built before most insurers will be willing to take the plunge, conference attendees said.

For example, Paul Huebner, senior vice president of e-business development at Ameritas Life Insurance Corp. in Lincoln, Neb., said his company isn't interested in spending money on wireless capabilities just to become "technology gurus."

"I'd prefer to look to others to provide the infrastructure for wireless, so we can focus on what's happening in the front office and with the customer," said Huebner. "Our experience is that networks get very complicated." Ameritas has just begun looking at wireless devices for potential use in providing its agents with customer data feeds and business alerts, he added.

Jim Allen, assistant IT director at Principal Financial Group Inc., said the Des Moines, Iowa-based company is experimenting with wireless technology and sees the potential benefits it offers for reducing paperwork and providing real-time insurance underwriting capabilities.

But Allen said he's concerned about the possible impact of increased I/O traffic coming from yet another electronic network, one that has yet to be proved scalable. "We're still struggling with the bottleneck created by our current e-business network," he said.

Ravi Kalakota, a consultant at E-Business Strategies Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga., and the author of a book about mobile business computing, told conference attendees that there remains a gap between what vendors are offering in wireless applications and what corporate users are looking for. Wireless communication also remains a technology in search of widely accepted standards, he said.

Kalakota pointed to the potential for huge returns on wireless investments. One study showed that if a company with 500 agents could reduce the time it takes to process an insurance claim from an average of 90 minutes to 75 minutes, it would save $17 million a year, he said.

But Kalakota cautioned IT managers at insurance firms to roll out wireless technology on an experimental basis only until they can show a solid business case for the technology. "The basic question that management is asking is, 'How can I save money and how can I make money?'" he added. "The technology itself isn't enough."

The biggest competitive driver for adopting wireless technology is to improve interactions with customers, said Randall Gregg, assistant vice president of e-commerce security at Benefit Life Insurance Co. in Atlanta.

Benefit Life has given wireless capabilities to about 100 agents as part of a test project, Gregg said. He added that the tryout has garnered the company "a lot of information about user interaction" and the type of data that agents want to see, which is primarily customer account records as well as charts and graphics.

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