A BRIEF HISTORY OF AUTOMATION: The Past, Present and Future of the Industry

By | May 15, 2000

In 1981, IBM introduced its personal computer (PC) for use in the home, office and schools. Prior to that time, there had been several MS-DOS compatible personal computers that ran DOS programs. As computers became more widespread in the workplace (ie. an independent agent’s office), new ways to unleash their potential developed. As smaller computers became more powerful, they could be linked together, or networked, to share memory space, software and information, and communicate with each other.

So where does the insurance industry enter the “automation” picture?

Independent agents have come a long way in using technology over the past 20 years. From the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, independent agents for the most part used PC-based automation systems to boost efficiency and cut costs.

Since 1970, ACORD, a not-for-profit standards-setting association for the insurance industry, has been involved in automation. The association is comprised of carriers, agents, vendors, solution providers, associations and other interested parties. “We aren’t the ones who ‘built’ the automation system,” said Carolyn “Cal” Durland, managing director of Standards for ACORD. “What we did and still do is provide standards-Forms and Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) upon which the vendors or solution providers base their automation systems.” She explained that to find out how the industry became automated, one must look to the vendors and solution providers.

In 1972, the first ACORD form, a property loss notice, went into use. Today, ACORD’s standards include Forms, AL3 (Automation Level 3), XML, OLife and ObjX. The Forms are point of sale, data collection vehicles, AL3 is ACORD’s EDI standard (or machine-to-machine, business-to-business, data transmission formats or components), OLife is a data integration standard and ObjX is “much more than EDI.”

In the 1980s-when the number of PCs in use increased dramatically-ACORD members asked for standardized electronic transmissions between the agents’ computers and the carriers’ computers.

“The industry has come to ACORD to consolidate efforts to eliminate duplication of work,” Durland said. “For example, without one approved, countrywide ACORD application, all of the 2,400-plus insurance carriers would have to have their own form. And the vendors or solution providers who automate those forms would have to customize each form.”

Now that ACORD and the industry are working hand-in-hand, there is one form accepted and used by many of those carriers. In addition, the vendors or solution providers have the option to become licensed by ACORD to redistribute the Forms. “ACORD provides them with tools…to print the ACORD Forms,” Durland said. “ACORD’s Forms efforts have stripped the costs out of this distribution channel.”

According to Durland, in the same manner that the industry came together with ACORD to do Forms, they have also worked to develop EDI Standards. “Through our subcommittee process and strict compliance to anti-trust guidelines, we bring together carriers, agents, vendors, solution providers and other interested parties to discuss what is needed to transmit the data collected,” she said.

Change is good
The industry on the whole, according to Durland, is slow to make changes, “although there are some carriers that have the resources to be on the leading edge of technology.”

The beginning was a bit archaic. “Carriers realized the benefits of automation and developed proprietary systems that they placed in the agents’ offices,” Durland said. “This resulted in the agents having to physically go from one terminal to another to interface with the carriers automating their process.”

With the inception of the agency management vendors and ACORD’s standards implemented in those systems, the agents were conceptually able to eliminate those proprietary terminals and work through one system. “This concept called SEMCI, Single Entry Multiple Company Interface, allowed the agents to keep the data in one place and transmit it electronically to any of the carriers it was licensed to represent,” Durland explained.

One step forward, two steps back
Ten years ago, when Durland joined ACORD, there were many agency management systems attempting to enable SEMCI. “Today, due to acquisitions and mergers, there are three primary vendors and a few smaller ones,” she said. “SEMCI is still the goal for the agents and the carriers. However, with the inception of Web enabled processes, the carriers-in an effort to streamline their costs-reverted back to proprietary applications.

“Those leading edge carriers put up Web sites that required the agent to go to the site and enter the information. So instead of going to a separate terminal in their office, they now had to connect to a Web site and rekey the data that was already in their databases.”

This resulted in the acceptance of the new standard XML. “XML is a standard that enables connectivity between Web applications and agency management systems, in addition to business-to-business, business-to-customer, etc.,” Durland said.

The goal to secure SEMCI, according to Durland, can still happen with the implementation of XML. “Plus it broadens the trading partner base to be more than the agent to insurance carrier,” she said.

A push for implementation
In the 1990s, implementation guides were written and a certification process was developed. Today, there are more than 12,000 upload and 40,000 download implementations using AL3 standards. AL3 continues to evolve and there are new implementations every day, including using AL3 standards over the Internet.

Ever since the dawn of the industry’s automation, forms standardization continued and still continues to be an important focus for ACORD as the standards-setting association works with many different trading partners within the industry.

Today there are roughly 400 ACORD forms. And although it’s important to note how many forms there are, what is even more important to note is the fact that these ACORD forms have eliminated or prevented 80,000 proprietary forms-saving the industry millions of dollars.

Communicating on a global basis
According to Durland, ACORD has staff dedicated to building relationships with other standards-setting organizations. The fact is, the industry handles business on a global basis, so it just makes sense that the goal is to be able to communicate on a global basis.

As an example, Durland pointed out that carriers write coverage for properties owned by people all over the world. In turn, these carriers work with other carriers or reinsurers to share the exposure.

When asked why it is so important for the industry to be automated, Durland said, “Automation strips costs out of workflows.” Simply put, to only have to go to one place for information and to be able to service customers quickly and efficiently is key.

“For example, the agent and carrier agree to indemnify the customer if they have a loss which is covered under their policy. The customer pays a fee based on that promise. When the loss occurs, they want someone to handle it promptly…to be given information on the progression of the resolution…and be paid or have the item replaced ASAP,” Durland said.

Automation makes it possible.

“With the technology and automation available to us today, the opportunities to share information are unlimited,” Durland said. “The industry realizes that and is working together to figure out how to communicate electronically with each other.”

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Insurance Journal West May 15, 2000
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