In today's information-based society, it's important for businesses to have access to up-to-the-minute information from many sources, customers, partners and suppliers. This is especially true in the insurance industry, where the time it takes to make decisions can alter the outcome of a claim, change the course of litigation or influence the cost of risk. Risk managers and claims administrators need solutions that will help them gain insight into the causes of loss and resulting claims. They need to model ways to address those issues in the future. An emerging area of technology known as "smart client" applications is gaining attention as a way to manage the causes and cost of claims.
The applications provide users with access to information and the tools to act on that information whenever and wherever they need to. The technology bridges the gap between browser-based "thin client" applications and more robust "rich client" applications, with better security and overall functionality. Smart client software combines the benefits of Web-based applications with the power of local client/server computing hardware.
"For the last 20 years or so, risk managers have dreamt of the ability to take their risk data and claims data and interrelate it to their business environment, providing a more holistic way of looking at risk management," says Steven Dorn, chief marketing officer at Frank Gates Service Co.--Visual Risk Solutions in Dublin, Ohio. "With traditional legacy or 'fat client' applications, the data was difficult to deploy, required significant maintenance on the back end, was not reusable, and there were various interoperability challenges with newer systems."
Conversely, Web-based technology relied on a thinned-down version of the application and provided less connectivity between the user and back-end systems. It ended up as "more of a Band-Aid for data management," Dorn explains.
"Security issues and difficulties in addressing claims management functions, such as letter generation and the ability to analyze the factors driving risk, led to the need for new solutions," he says.
Smart client technology fills that need, according to Dorn, because customers are putting a premium on how fast they can get an answer to what's driving risk. "To do that, you have to be able to bridge data in real time," he says. "All of the different applications whereby data and information live have to be integrated into one real-time view. That product functionality is what smart client technology offers."
Like a browser-based application, smart client software can be deployed from a Web server. Once deployed, the applications can automatically update themselves to the latest version of the software that resides on the server.
The key to smart client technology is the ability for users to work with data even when they are not connected to the Internet or the network that hosts the Web service. Because part of the logic sits on a local computer, smart client applications deliver functionality even offline, which sets smart client applications apart from browser-based applications, or legacy "dumb client" architectures. With smart client technology, you don't have to worry if you can't get online or your network is down.
"When you go out in the field, you can't always guarantee that you'll have Web access," says Dorn. "If you do, you still have all kinds of technological barriers to circumnavigate, such as firewalls and network security issues, that may impede your ability to succeed in that environment. Smart client applications are designed for risk managers and claims professionals who need instant access to data in the field, along with the ability to synchronize data once they return to the office."
Using a smart client application, a claims representative can "undock" data from the local server, plug it into his laptop, go out into the field, review the claim data with a TPA, update the information, bring the laptop back to the office and plug the data back into the local server. The system will automatically synchronize the data and update the file.
"This technology automatically gives you the ability to do a lot more 'plug and play' with your information without any extra overhead of third-party software or platform incompatibility. From a functional perspective, that's huge," he says.
Many smart client applications are enabled through Microsoft's .NET framework, the foundation for the next generation of Microsoft Windows applications. Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003 includes tools that enable the development of smart client applications. Office 2007 will integrate more smart client features, including the ability to synchronize e-mail, personal calendars and document management features.
Visual Risk Solutions has been developing a smart client project for Microsoft's treasury department for reporting and analyzing risk, claims and policy data. The new software will allow several elements to be managed through one platform, including policies, litigation, financials, diaries, documents and claims. Risk and claims managers will have the ability to inform, measure and improve business processes.
"Smart client applications will provide us with a more responsive way to match occurrences with policy coverage," says Brian Warren, group manager, business risk management, in the treasury department at Microsoft. "We'll be able to set up an occurrence file to track potential liability, identify whether we have a responding insurance policy and determine the limits available, determine whether there is a potential for a claim and, if so, send the information directly to the appropriate insurance company."
Warren also says tighter e-mail integration to allow managers to transfer information into the database is "our biggest objective."
"The ability of the smart client application to more closely integrate with Office tools, particularly Outlook and Excel, provides us with greater processing power, giving us the ability to pull in and manipulate data quickly, which will ultimately streamline workflow and improve productivity," he says.
"Working hand-in-hand with what's already available on the desktop provides greater agility through the use of tools individuals are already comfortable with, reducing the learning curve for new systems and providing the ability to extract data in real time and make immediate decisions," says Ron Savoia, director of the U.S. Services Solutions Team at Microsoft. "This provides the ability to analyze and model the causes of risk and, ultimately, mitigate exposures."
"Our goal is to provide risk and claims managers with the tools they need to intelligently identify and process claims, determine coverage amounts and deductibles, and communicate with policyholders in a timely and efficient manner," says Savoia. In the end, managers will have an easier time generating an explanation of benefits or first notice of loss.
The bottom line, says Dorn, is that the smart client model bridges multiple systems in a real-time, user-friendly environment to provide a holistic view of risk. "Smart client technology can help drive decisions on retention levels and premiums, safety and loss control issues, determine how to attack medical costs, all in real time, and identify where they can have the most impact on their business," he says.
lives in Pennsylvania.
May 1, 2007
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