ORLANDO, Fla., May 19, 2003 — At the ACORD 2003 Annual Conference, one of the largest insurance industry conferences of the year, Microsoft and the Association for Cooperative Operations Research and Development (ACORD) — a nonprofit insurance industry standards organization — announced a joint effort to create a forms service that will link standardized insurance forms to XML Web services.
Josh Lee, Managing Director, Microsoft Financial Services Group. Click on the image for a high resolution photo
The XML-based forms, which will be developed using Microsoft Office Infopath 2003, Microsoft’s new information-gathering application, will enable insurance agencies to fill out electronic forms once and then link the data with the click of a button to other forms, databases, back-end systems and applications via XML Web Services. Aimed at helping the insurance industry reduce the overhead associated with complex transaction processing and the errors that result from having to re-key data several times, the forms service is expected to standardize the way forms relate to industry-specific XML data standards such as ACORD’s, and how the data itself is delivered.
PressPass spoke with Josh Lee , managing director and lead strategist of the Financial Services group at Microsoft, about the significance of the announcement, Microsoft’s overall strategy for serving the insurance industry and the role of InfoPath and XML Web Services in the new technology solution.
PressPass: Why has Microsoft joined forces with ACORD on this initiative?
Lee: We hope the work we’re doing with ACORD sends a strong message to insurance carriers, brokerages, and agents that Microsoft is committed to solving some of their biggest business challenges, which include workflow inefficiency, data redundancy and errors. Microsoft has been working hard to increase the relevance and value of its products to vertical industries, and announcements like this one are direct evidence that we’re totally committed to increasing support for industry workflow and standards.
Of course the first organization within the insurance industry to turn to accomplish this goal was the Association for Cooperative Operations Research and Development, which is a nonprofit membership organization aimed at developing data standards for the insurance industry. Since 1970, ACORD has been very involved in standardizing the way insurance businesses run, from when a potential customer walks into an insurance office, all the way through to claims and the way that transactions are communicated back and forth among major carriers, brokerages, agents, and so on. Initially the organization focused on standardizing insurance forms, and then moved on to pass data standards for insurance transaction processing. Lately ACORD has been very focused on developing industry-specific XML data standards and has joined the WS-I, a technology industry consortium focused on the adoption and acceleration of Web services. So they’re natural partners for us on this initiative.
PressPass: Can you elaborate more on the need for such a solution? What are some of the technology challenges the industry faces?
Lee: Most businesses today acknowledge that the way they gather information is inefficient and cumbersome, and businesses in the insurance industry — which include reinsurance companies, property and casualty companies like home and auto insurance, as well as life-insurance companies that offer annuities and long-term care, are no exception.
For decades ACORD made available to insurance companies standardized forms that were developed over time to capture the necessary data, but they nonetheless remained in paper form. Then a decade or so ago a lot of smaller vendors developed proprietary form-generation packages to help insurance workers enter information electronically. But despite the fact that the format of the forms themselves — the visual print output — has been standardized for over 500 ACORD forms, there’s been no standardization for the workflow surrounding these forms.
So even if a business uses a proprietary niche forms package to help generate the necessary forms, in many cases it still isn’t able to capture the data and enter it directly into a database or map it to any other resources in the business. So insurance information workers end up having to rekey the data to use it again. And more often than not, the form is faxed to the insurance carrier, who may also end up having to rekey the data.
Now some vendors that offer custom forms applications have built their solutions on top of data standards like XML, which makes it possible for companies using the solution to transfer the data to their back end systems or route it using a fax server. But this is a custom effort, and at the end of the day the data capture isn’t all that great, so the data still ends up being rekeyed or mapped using complicated tools and methods a lot of the time. There’s really been no way to seamlessly target workflow using information worker technology until now.
One thing nearly all these businesses have in common is Microsoft Office, which, because of its ubiquity, functions much like an enterprise desktop application with visibility across the whole company. Until now, however, Office itself has largely been a disconnected part of their enterprise–it didn’t tie in very well to other systems and resources. So we’re using InfoPath, which is a part of the Office Professional 2003 Enterprise Edition, and XML Web Services to unify the Office environment with the back-end systems that parse the data and really streamline the information that’s passed to and from the carriers.
PressPass: What role will InfoPath and XML Web services play in making this solution a reality?
Lee: Microsoft and ACORD are working to map all of ACORD’s standardized forms to XML-based Web services. Because InfoPath is built from the ground up to understand XML and natively supports XML Web services, insurance information workers entering data into an InfoPath form will be able to process applications on or offline, using the same text-editing features you find in a program like Microsoft Word, and then upload them to a Web service for processing. The Web service, in turn, will be able to extract and route the data so that it can be used over and over again. If workers need paper forms, they can direct the Web service to export the data to a Word file or a document format like Adobe PDF for printing, faxing or archival.
PressPass: What exactly is InfoPath and how does it relate to XML?
Lee: XML is about creating documents in which the content is delimited, or set apart, by tags that explain the meaning of that content. Of course, the innovation behind XML is the fact that it can describe a wide range of information.
InfoPath, which natively supports XML, is an information gathering application that combines the familiarity of a traditional word-processing program with the rigorous data-capture capabilities of a forms package. The underlying structure of the information that is gathered using an InfoPath template is described using a schema . A schema describes how the data is constructed, much like a blueprint illustrates how a building is designed.
Because InfoPath is built from the ground up to support XML, companies can define their own business-specific schema using the latest XML data standards. This is a significant advantage because it lets organizations determine for themselves what kind of data they want to gather. Microsoft is an active supporter in the ACORD standards process.
Native support of XML also means that InfoPath can send data using these industry-defined schemas to backend systems or across the enterprise via XML Web services, which Microsoft and ACORD will develop together as part of the initiative.
PressPass: Can you talk more about the significance of XML Web Services as they relate to InfoPath and the ACORD solution?
Lee: InfoPath can gather and send, or receive and read, XML data from a Web service without having to first translate the data to the XML format. The benefits of this capability are significant. Because XML is the native file format of all the information that is gathered, InfoPath eliminates translation errors and the need to do custom programming, which reduces development time and costs. This level of support in InfoPath also lowers the cost of developing solutions that use this data, because the data is represented and structured the way you need it from the start.
As part of the initiative being announced by Microsoft and ACORD, we’ll work together to create the Web services component that can look up the destination of the data, which the user will be able to specify on the ACORD template, and automatically route it via a Web or FTP address, a fax server address, and so on, to the appropriate location in XML format.
PressPass: Can you provide a scenario for how the ACORD forms service will work?
Lee: Say you have a mid-size insurance agency of about 30 employees, who use Microsoft Office 2003 to accomplish the bulk of their daily responsibilities. This agency belongs to a program offered through ACORD that provides access to the latest ACORD/InfoPath templates, as well as the Web services that support those forms. As I mentioned earlier, in the past, when a potential customer calls or comes in the office to buy a new policy, the agent would fill out either an electronic or paper ACORD form and fax it into the insurance company of their choice, and the carrier would have to rekey the data again. But with the new service, the agent would simply type the customer’s information into an online or offline version of the ACORD template using InfoPath, which lets them save the offline version for their own personal files, and then hit the Send button. The Web service would then route the information to other forms, databases, back-end systems, other applications, or the insurance carrier, depending on which options the agent clicked onscreen.
That’s the common scenario, but it can become infinitely more complex and value-added as major carriers engage directly with the provider of these forms Web services. We see a lot of potential for all sizes of insurance carriers to build an entire infrastructure around these forms. They may use the ACORD forms or the ACORD forms plus another 200 internal forms, and they’ll want them all to have the same look and feel and the same XML capabilities so that they can tie the data together. So we’re hoping to push this service to all insurance companies as well, so that they can build that form infrastructure for themselves.
PressPass: What is Microsoft’s strategy for the insurance industry moving forward?
Lee: Our strategy in this sphere is closely linked to the vision behind Microsoft’s overall XML Web services strategy: to make it easy to create, access, and share XML data between different systems on the network. With InfoPath, we have for the first time an end-user product that natively supports XML using custom-driven schema. We want to use that capability moving forward to continue to evolve our and our partners’ products so that together we can help the various players in the insurance industry reduce transaction processing time, making it as seamless and clean as possible, from the front to the back office.