The insurance industry’s standards-setting body, ACORD, needed a standard way for employees and members to communicate. It needed to cut costs and boost productivity among its global membership. Its new unified communications platform uses Microsoft® technologies that cost up to 80 percent less than alternatives, yet enable users to move seamlessly among document management; instant messaging; telephony; and voice, video, and Web conferencing.
ACORD—the Association for Cooperative Operations Research and Development—includes hundreds of enterprise insurance companies and related organizations that collaborate on the creation of open data standards and standard forms. It isn’t only ACORD’s work products that need to be standardized: so do the ways in which ACORD employees and members communicate and collaborate to create those work products.
Although ACORD has 60 employees, making it seem like a small organization, it needs to host the communication and collaboration of thousands of individuals at hundreds of insurance companies and solution providers, giving it the responsibilities of a large enterprise. Yet ACORD ran a range of communication and collaboration technologies that ill served it.
The range of technologies was a management burden for the ACORD IT staff of five. Even technologies that were hosted elsewhere, such as Kavi and WebEx, were problematic because of the high hosting fees incurred.
Frank Neugebauer, Assistant Vice President of Technology at ACORD, had concerns about controlling this diverse range of technologies.
“We had to pay fees for any updates or changes we wanted to several of these technologies,” says Neugebauer. “That was a big problem for us. So was the fact that we had user information—for example, with Skype—on the open Internet. Our need for communication and collaboration was increasing rapidly, but our technologies for communication and collaboration presented more and more challenges.”
ACORD wanted a unified communications environment. Some options, like IBM, represented a poor match with the ACORD skill set. Others, like Kavi, presented costs that ACORD was unwilling to pay.
||Microsoft communication and collaboration technologies give us more functionality, tighter integration, a better fit for our skill set, and more control—for less money. That makes it a no-brainer.
Assistant Vice President of Technology, ACORD
Instead, ACORD turned to technologies that it already used elsewhere in the association: Microsoft® technologies. ACORD is now in the process of rolling out a set of Microsoft technologies that will work together to provide all the communication and collaboration services it now has—including telephony; voice over IP (VoIP); voice, video, and Web conferencing; and instant messaging—plus more, while fitting with the skill set of ACORD IT staff and costing the association far less, according to Neugebauer.
The association is migrating from Raindance, Skype, and ooVoo to Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 for telephony and VoIP, accessed through a unified Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 environment. “Our vision is to use Office Communications Server for all of our telecommunications, both public telephone service and Internet service,” says Neugebauer. “Office Communications Server will also give us voice and peer-to-peer video conferencing and instant messaging, replacing almost all of our Raindance usage and all of ooVoo and Skype, while adding presence awareness to our system. We’ll complement that with Microsoft Office Live Meeting for Web conferencing.”
ACORD will be extending its conferencing capabilities beyond its own organization so that members also have access. In addition, they’ll have access to collaboration features they never had before, such as presence awareness and integrated user profiles, courtesy of Microsoft Office SharePoint® Server 2007, as well as enhanced capabilities for document management. ACORD is rolling out a new www.acord.org, built entirely on Office SharePoint Server, to centralize the maintenance and management of the site.
The combination of the communication and collaboration capabilities in a unified communications environment will make it possible for ACORD employees and members to use them in seamless ways, says Neugebauer. For example, employees can initiate communication through instant messaging, and click on the contact to shift to a VoIP call or peer-to-peer video or Web conference as appropriate.
“Microsoft communication and collaboration technologies give us more functionality, tighter integration, a better fit for our skill set, and more control—for less money,” says Neugebauer. “That makes it a no-brainer for us.”
By reducing its hosting fees, update and change fees, and internal maintenance costs, ACORD expects to save hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next five years and up to 80 percent of the cost of the alternatives it considered. “Our members want us to have the tools that we, and they, need for the mission of the association, but they want us to operate as cost-effectively as possible. Microsoft makes this possible,” says Neugebauer.
Beyond saving money, Neugebauer sees the combined technologies of Microsoft unified communications changing how ACORD employees and members work, and work together. “We’ll all be more efficient,” he says. “We won’t spend time logging on and off communications applications, trying to remember passwords as we move among them. Instead, we’ll be in one communications environment with a single logon, able to concentrate on the task at hand.”
Employees and members will also be able to “concentrate on the task at hand” when it comes to managing the documents that are at the core of the association’s standardization mission. Formerly, most document exchange happened through email, creating problems of version control and time delays if messages went astray or unnoticed. Now, check-in and check-out of documents in Office SharePoint Server 2007, as well as automatic notification of document changes, will mitigate those concerns, making it easier for groups of members working together to collaborate on new standards.
Pete Teresi, ACORD IT Manager and the architect of portions of the environment, notes, “Our developers—Manreen Kaur and Tom DeVoe—and administrators—Robert Marek and Corey Calajoe—now have the tools to create what is required, instead of just supporting what we’re given.”