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Case Studies
CSI Insurance
CSI Insurance Develops E-Commerce Site for Agents in 4 Person-Months

The CSI Agency developed an e-commerce site that serves independent agents in only four person-months of development time. When management originally conceived the plan to market through independent agents, information technology staff estimated that a 36 person-month effort is required to develop a web-based front end to the company's existing mainframe policy application.

Then Greg Steible, IT Manager at CSI, heard about a new development tool that automatically creates a web browser front end to mainframe screens while providing a macro language that makes it possible to add intelligence to the application. Using enable, Steible developed the front end at a fraction of the cost of the internal option, while building intelligence into the web application so that it can be used without training by independent agents that are unfamiliar with the company's operating practices.

CSI is an automobile insurance company that has traditionally sold through its own agents located in 12 offices in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, Texas. The company maintains its business operations on an IBM mainframe computer. When the company's agents sell policies, they immediately set them up on its insurance application using 3270 terminals located in each office.

Management recently made the decision to expand the company's marketing operations to independent agents located throughout the state. The basic idea was that sales at the company's offices are primarily driven by advertising while there are many other consumers that prefer to buy through a local independent agent. Thus management felt that selling the company's insurance lines through independent agents would provide additional revenues without cannibalizing the company's existing channel.

Servicing independent agents
A critical issue was how to interface with the independent agents. Management had reduced operating expenses by automating interaction with its internal sales staff so there was little enthusiasm for hiring the large clerical staff that would be required to handle paper-based interactions with an independent sales force that could potentially grow to several thousand agents. Having had considerable experience in automating interactions with the internal sales force, the decision was made to investigate building a web front-end to the company's existing mainframe application.

"Writing a graphical interface to our mainframe would have been an enormous project," Steible said. "We would have had to hire a technology service firm or try to hire experienced web designers, which would have been very difficult. The cost of the project would have been high and its complexity would have created the risk of spending a lot of time and money without ever creating a working system."

Steible began to investigate the new generation of GUI development tools that have achieved a high level of popularity by making it possible to quickly convert mainframe applications to run on Windows or the Web. In the past done with services, GUI to development solutions give mainframe developers the ability to transform existing text screens so they look and function like Windows programs. They make it possible to quickly transform mission critical applications so they can be used in a graphical environment on a personal computer.

As a matter of course, GUI tools evaluate the 3270 data stream and generate on the fly GUI screens with Windows point and click functionality. The more powerful GUI tools also let the developer customize the screen by adding visual and functional enhancements such as pop-up windows, radio buttons, list boxes, pull-down menus, toolbars, background graphics and logos.

Problems with GUI tools
Steible investigated several of these tools but ran into a few obstacles. The first was that the company's existing mainframe application was designed for use by the agents that had gone through the company's training program. It requires a considerable amount of training, for example, obtaining information not covered by the application, such as qualifying the prospective customer by making sure that they do not use their car for business because CSI does not provide insurance in that case. It would have been very expensive and probably impractical to have provided the same training to the many independent agents that were interested in selling CSI's policies.

So the company needed to modify the application to build in the intelligence that was normally provided during the training process. Yet, the great majority of GUI products that Steible examined, while providing the ability to make cosmetic changes, did not allow for application changes of this magnitude.

Another problem with the GUI development tools that Steible considered was the large amount of computing resources required to run them on the client side. "The products that we considered typically require an 8 to 10 megabyte download to install on the client computer," he said.

"They also need a considerable amount of computing resources to run effectively. The problem is that the independent agents that we work with often do not have the latest equipment. I tested one of the GUI tool clients on a 433 Megahertz Pentium II with 32 Megabytes of RAM, which is quite typical of the machines that the independent agents have. When I tried to execute the program, the computer thrashed and required several minutes for each screen to come up. It was clear that we needed a thinner client to provide a practical solution."

A new approach fits the need
Then Steible learned about the enable development tool which is a Java based web-to-host connectivity solution that extends the reach and enhances the functionality of host applications. enable makes hosts accessible through a browser, so employees, vendors and customers can access the host from Intranets, Extranets, and the Internet.

Users download a Java emulation applet and connect to the host through their browser. Users navigate customized host screens as if they were any other pages on the Web choosing selections from pick lists to move from one screen to the next and clicking on links to other web sites.

One advantage of enable is that it provides a macro programming environment that makes it possible to not only change the appearance of screens but to add additional logic. The advanced macro facility makes it possible, for example, to add fields or screens or to move fields from one screen to another.

"I downloaded the demonstration version of the program and played around with it for a day or two," Steible said. "It soon became clear that it was powerful enough to add enough intelligence to the mainframe application to extend it to independent agents."

Implementing the solution
Steible loaded enable on the server and was immediately able to establish a telnet session in which he was able to access the mainframe application. "Without any effort on my part, the program read the 3270 screens and converted them to HTML," Steible said.

"enable automatically detects PF key assignment strings, such as PF3 for exit, and automatically converts these strings to action buttons. It also recognizes numbered menus and automatically converts them into button driven menus. I changed fonts and colors and moved fields around in order to make them more intuitive. This part of the implementation process barely required cracking the manual."

Next, Steible began making modifications to the application using enable's advanced macro facility. The native 3270 program involves a sequence of events that requires 11 different steps on the part of the agent. Several hours of training are required to explain this sequence, and it normally takes agents weeks before they become fully proficient.

Steible used the macro programming facility to combine screens, move fields around and add explanatory text in order to create a wizard-like environment that makes this sequence self-teaching. For example, he dealt with the issue mentioned above of making sure that the prospective customer does not use the vehicle for commercial purposes by adding a screen that asks whether the customer uses the vehicle commercially. If the agent answers yes, then a new screen comes up that says that it will not be possible to provide insurance for that person.

The net result, according to Steible, is that CSI has been able to substantially expand the market that it serves at a very minimal cost. "Web enabling our mainframe insurance application has the potential to dramatically increase our revenues without a significant expenditure," he said.

"We have already signed up six master agents that serve a total of 2,500 independent agents. The agents are able to enter new policies directly into our database and print an application for the customer's signature and temporary insurance card and everything else they need to put the policy in force from a local laser printer. This means that our administrative expense from adding all these sales people is close to zero. For a very small expenditure and in a short period of time, GUI development helped us dramatically increase the size of the market that we serve."

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