When you’re a David battling a Goliath in the insurance industry, getting ahead of the technology curve may be your best bet for scoring a win.

That’s why Family Insurance Solutions Inc. of Vancouver went to Calgary-based Pangaea Systems Inc. to stay competitive in the B.C. insurance industry.

Family Insurance is a managing general agency — a wholesaler that sits between an insurance company and the insurance broker — and deals in all lines of personal insurance, including property and auto. With the help of Pangaea, it is building a Web-based point-of-sale (POS) insurance and maintenance system to help its network of 250 brokers and credit union locations across the province sell insurance products to their customers. The POS application, built on Microsoft’s .Net platform and using the C# language, will be designed to scale and handle more than $75 million in insurance product transactions.

“”We’re growing at a pretty good clip,”” says Ian James, Family’s director of IT. “”The scaleability issues therein were part of the driver for this entire project.”” Family is also unique, he adds, in that all of its processes are fully automated in what is otherwise a very traditional paper-based world. “”Our technology is a very important differentiator of what we bring to the broker community.””

Family and Pangaea are just over a month into what will be a tight 12-month deployment. Currently, says James, Family has a two-tier client/server architecture — the various 250 locations connect by way of a VPN through to a gateway and into a database server.

“”That creates all types of interesting and significant challenges for us,”” he says. “”Application distribution is a big problem because we get drawn kicking and screaming into point-of-sale environmental issues. We have to do a lot more technical (and networking) support than we would want to.””

One of the primary reasons for developing a POS application now, says James, is maintainability. “”That existing system is a legacy system that’s grown over a long period of time. There’s a real lack of modularity. Everything’s sequential and the scope of our testing effort is very broad. We tend to have very extended product delivery cycles.””

And when you’re competing with a giant provincial monopoly such as the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, time to market is a real issue, as is operational efficiency.

“”Our rapid business growth demands the system support a significant transaction growth,”” James says. “”While our existing system is certainly far from a crisis situation, it’s just starting to show the pre-symptoms that the performance is starting to be strained.””

Because Family is already fully automated, says James, reliability is paramount.

“”There’s really no manual work around for our customers, so if the system goes down, they go down.””

Family’s customers will be able to access the Web-based POS application via an Internet browser regardless of technology on-site. Family is also aiming to ensure the application is as simple and familiar to use as the existing system, so there will be little training required.

Family has finished the planning phase; now it’s going through a business confirmation design phase.

“”All of the requirements of the existing system are fully documented,”” says James. “”We are making some functional enhancements.”” This phase is expected to finish at the end of May, after which Family will undertake a one-month prototyping phase. “”Prototyping is very important for Family because it will effectively ensure appropriate usability of the system.””

Family is already a Microsoft shop, and that’s one of the reasons it’s taking the .Net approach, says James. The primary .Net component will be the C# language.

“”It’s a less painful transition for our developers who have been using C++ for the last number of years.””

There’s also an opportunity to salvage some existing code, says James.

Paul Morgan, executive vice-president of Pangaea, says it’s a very tight timeframe, but understandable for an organization such as Family that wants to stay ahead of the curve. “”Family Insurance is probably ahead of their competitors by quite some distance.””

Family’s POS application is a perfect example of how business drivers are playing a stronger role in technology projects, says Morgan.

“”Business people are becoming more educated,”” he says. “”What Family insurance has done extremely well is they’ve blended the business process re-engineering aspects to a very strong and business-oriented IT group.””

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