Reinsurer’s portal kicks complacency

Geographical distances over North America and the fast pace of the financial services sector make internal communication a challenge for Toronto-based Revios Reinsurance. Formerly operating as Gerling Global Life Reinsurance Co,, this full-service life reinsurance organization has been providing U.S. and Canadian life insurance companies with risk protection services for over 30 years.

“To communicate amongst the staff was becoming a problem as our client base grew,” recalls Paul Tomlinson, regional vice-president, marketing. “We had a lot of information regarding clients and our own business on what we fondly refer to as the G-drive but it was replicated in various forms. Some of it was out of date. Some of it was not relevant. It was impossible to find with ease. Various databases were being used by respective departments so everyone wasn’t accessing the same information at the same time.”

Some time ago, the company had created an intranet site to help improve communication, but maintenance on that site was totally dependent on the IT staff, Tomlinson says. It wasn’t very user friendly and slowly fell into disuse.

“We knew that we couldn’t expect much more from IT support because with our growing company they were basically run off their feet,” he adds. “With that in mind, we were convinced that a user friendly intranet site was absolutely essential and, in fact, might free up some additional IT time. We also felt that if we could organize our files in such a way that there wouldn’t be replication of those files, it would allow for better analysis of our business.”

After a successful pilot of the solution recommended by Toronto-based consulting firm Cyberplex Inc., in January 2004 Revios selected a Microsoft Corp. Office System internal communication portal based on Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services 2003.

“A better way of communicating with our staff and sharing information — that’s the way we looked at it,” explains Lynden Philadelphia, manager, network services. “It didn’t rely on the IT infrastructure department to run the updates or fill the Web site with information. Every department has their own site now and a contributor in charge of their site. Users can schedule alerts when certain items change on their site. This way, each department is responsible for a certain area. The IT [department] just manages the day-to-day back end of the servers as required.”

The new portal offers Revios’s employees an easy entry into everywhere they might need to go virtually. The home page content is of interest to everyone in the company. It includes a staff directory, news from the IT department such as scheduled updates, Revios news, industry news, an itinerary of who is in or out and templates such as letterhead or expense account forms. It also has an application directory with icons to conveniently launch homegrown Revios applications for financial analysis, accessing SQL servers to typically populate Excel spreadsheets or Access databases.

“If your Active Directory and security rights are secure, individuals would only see things that they are allowed to see by their assigned rights,” Philadelphia says.

The portal also reduces network demands and slows the growth of storage on Revios’s mail servers through the use of portal alerts or notifications sent to users when any relevant file, site, person, or application has been added or changed. Since staff can set SharePoint to send an alert when new information is added to the portal, employees are no longer e-mailing documents when they need another teammate’s input. All documents are maintained within a central team site using SharePoint, with only links to the document being circulated via e-mail.

Cutting down storage space and reducing network traffic goes beyond saving Revios from upgrading equipment soon, Philadelphia adds. “It also saves on restore time in the event of a disaster. It keeps our databases streamlined and limits the time to access information. If the database is smaller, the information is going to be accessed a lot quicker. With less network traffic, there’s less congestion.” And, fewer calls for support frees IT staff to attend to other projects.

The portal has also helped streamline those IT projects. Revios IT staff can now collaborate on projects through shared work spaces and team project sites within SharePoint.

As time goes on and its use increases, other benefits are reinforcing the promised convenience of using the portal.

“This new method of collaborating on documents and projects has not only increased the security of the information we store, but has also brought significant benefits in terms of document version control,” Tomlinson says. “We’ve been successful in getting authors of various reports to use the portal as a repository for that report. It is very organized in there as well. You can see the history of the reports sitting there.

“Before, with various revisions, you never knew which one you had,” he continues. “Now, the latest version is sitting there and there’s no question which document in whatever application should be used. When it goes into our document library on the portal, that’s it. Everyone knows that’s the final document. We can now rest assured that teams are working with the most up-to-date documents.” Previously, each department was maintaining its own file on a specific company. For example, marketing, actuarial, underwriting and finance each could have an ABC company folder. It was unwieldy, Tomlinson recalls. “You could never rely that you had everything on that company because it was unlikely you did.”

Now, in contrast, Sharepoint’s nightly indexing of the G-drive makes information readily accessible. In a demonstration, Tomlinson proves the convenience by launching a search using the name of a company Revios does business with. He counts only three seconds before every file with that company’s name even referenced is listed, as opposed to the previously tedious task of trying to search the G-drive. “Communication has improved immeasurably,” Tomlinson says. “Everyone knows or has the ability to know what’s going on in the company and in other departments if they want to.”

Revios assigned each department a champion or portal contributor. Through Active Directory and Sharepoint, each contributor can add and delete at just their departmental site, building the site in conjunction with their colleagues as they deem most useful to them. The design of their own department page is left to them within the constraints of the portal itself.

Similarly, all employees are encouraged to personalize their listing in the company directory with a mini-site with both work-related and personal information ranging from their skills, training and languages they speak to photos of themselves, family and pets.

Obviously any communication tool has little effectiveness if it goes unused. Although accepted by the majority, Tomlinson admits that not everyone is using the portal even today, a year later, although it is easy to use and contributors only needed 15 minutes of training to get the cut-and-paste hang of populating their sites.

“Old habits die hard,” he says. Initially, many authors of reports would continue to store information in the G-drive even though it would be of interest to more than one department and would basically be lost forever in the G-drive. Any time he caught wind of that, he would encourage the author of the report “in no uncertain terms” to place that report on their department site with an e-mail alert that it is now available on that department’s Web site, stored in a document library. He would also promote the portal by asking, “Did you see the news about XYZ? No? Well, it’s on the portal.”

Also, the portal home page is in front of all