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Integrating disparate systems is a common chore for CIOs and software architects in the insurance industry, according to the new Global CEO Survey by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Insurers face constant regulatory changes and customers' demand for better customer service, driving demand for system integration projects. To solve those systems issues, software professionals are using a stalwart tool, the Business Process Execution Language (BPEL). But experts say changing human processes calls for more than BPEL.
BPEL offers three main advantages to insurance companies, according to Naumann Noor, a Chicago-based management consultant:
- It can synchronize two or more business units while adopting more streamlined processes and technologies;
- it scales effectively with a variable workforce; and
- it provides effective knowledge management.
It's easy for [contractors] to pick up what was done and what was built because [BPEL] is so standard-driven.
These align neatly with the CEO's goals, Noor said.
BPEL basics: Syncing business units
Large insurance companies have focused on being product-centric. Each product line operates in a silo, resulting in the need for multiple systems to integrate the data in order to meet customer-centric initiatives, Noor said.
Use BPEL on the back end to bring together disparate systems for single sign-in portals so customers can review all their products, or allow a single customer service representative to answer questions for both a life insurance plan and an annuity, he advised.
This integration also allows insurance companies to upsell and cross-sell to customers. For example, when a customer reaches age 50, companies want to actively engage the customer regarding life insurance, annuities and retirement plans, Noor said. Pulling customer data into a unified view enables representatives to know which customers are prime candidates for these plans.
Provide a common language for the workforce
Since integration initiatives often require adding staff, BPEL provides a standard language for consultants and short-term contractors to use when integrating a large pool of qualified applicants, Noor said. "If I want to hire 10 programmers tomorrow that know integration very well, and if I tell them they have to do something with BPEL in Oracle's application suite, I can get a level of consistency from day one," he said. This also makes it easier for contractors to work with in-house architects without having to learn a proprietary programming language.
Another advantage to BPEL is that nonstandard programmers, not just specialized software architects, can understand the code, according to Vaughn Bullard, founder and CEO of Ashburn, Va.-based consultancy BuildAutomate Inc. "BPEL is all XML. It's understandable; it's easy to read," he said.
Aside from that, BPEL is also portable, according to Bullard. Because it's standard SOA, it allows programmers to decouple processes from application servers and move them to another platform. "For example, if you're using an Oracle suite and want to go to an IBM suite, you don't necessarily need to change your BPEL processes that much. It allows you to basically switch midstream if [a new] product comes out," he said.
In the long term, maintaining systems is critical to preserving investments and keeping technology aligned with business goals. Many companies use contractors to ramp up a project and release them once the initial phases are complete, thus losing the contractor's knowledge. Such a scenario is inconvenient at best if nonstandard language is used. However, companies revisiting and maintaining initiatives built on BPEL can hire new contractors that know the standard, Noor said. "If you wanted someone to maintain it, it's easy for them to pick up what was done and what was built because [BPEL] is so standard-driven," he said.
Enable everyday automation
In day-to-day operations, Business Process Execution Language enables insurance companies to automate processes like insurance claims that come from medical offices. This is one process where human approval can be removed by programming parameters to accept claims, allowing for faster processing, according to Bullard.
"One of the things we were brought in to do for a [healthcare] customer was figure out why healthcare claims weren't being processed in three to four days. They were being processed weeks after being submitted," Bullard said.
Turns out the claims were being processed manually, resulting in the company paying out nearly $1 million because of the slow processing time. BPEL automated the claims approval process, automatically submitting them to the insurance company, resulting in $5 million in bonuses, he said.
Another strength of BPEL's is error automation, according to Bullard. An error in a healthcare claim, for example, can be routed to a human by using BPEL to code the process.
Know BPEL's limitations
Business process execution language basics
Guide to SOA BPM and BPEL
The current state of BPEL
Solving common BPEL issues
BPEL is only suited to automating integration and machine-driven processes. Long-running processes that need human interaction, like insurance underwriting with multiple criteria, is where BPEL falls short, according to Kapil Pant, senior management at Deloitte Consulting, a division of Deloitte Development LLC. Something like a customer asking for a quote that incorporates business rules to grant approval is fine for BPEL, he said.
Pant recommended using business process management (BPM) for human-involved tasks. "BPM is a combination of business process automation and orchestration [and] its underlying integration with SOA," he said.
About the author:
Christine Parizo is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology. She focuses on feature articles for a variety of technology and business-focused publications, as well as case studies and white papers for business-to-business technology companies.