Holiday wishlist: risk managers really want seamless integration between their software and hardware, but for that they’ll likely have to wait

Holiday wishlist: risk managers really want seamless integration between their software and hardware, but for that they’ll likely have to wait – technology

John Otrompke

There’s no shortage of risk management information software in the marketplace these days. Most risk managers like Henry Good, director of travel and insurance with Rohm and Haas in Philadelphia, can reel off a number of the software suites in his sleep. There’s Marsh Inc.’s STARS risk management information systems suite that tracks information on incident reporting. Then there’s Travelers’ e-CARMA suite that allows risk managers to have access to multiple risk management information tools. There’s also Liberty Mutual’s RISKTRAC, which allows risk managers to generate loss information at the push of a button. And third-party vendors like GAB Robins have refined their software offerings such as ClientTeligent, for many years now.

The dozens of software offerings are all well and good. But the trick for Good and his peers is to find an easy way to have access to all this information from the road–which is not always as easy as it sounds.

Good, for example, travels with his Blackberry. But it’s often not enough and he finds himself using it in conjunction with other gadgets. “The Blackberry is live all the time; it functions as a calendar, and a new version released in the last couple of months also functions as a cell phone,” Good says. “But I can’t cruise the Web on mine, so 1 bring my laptop as well.”

Good says that Blackberries, which have been on the market for only a couple of years now, are getting very popular. Some versions cost less than $100. Still, risk managers don’t rely on their Blackberries to deliver really technical information, such as retirement and annuities plan data on the difference between a 401(k), a 412(i) and cash balance plans.

For converts to the Blackberry, which may be gaining in popularity over Palms and other PDAs, the devices are not without competition. In the ultracompetitive telecommunications industry there’s always a newer gadget around the corner.

Just ask John Devic, director of environmental health and safety with manufacturer Collins & Aikman. He routinely arms himself with his P-800 smart phone when he hits the road. “I have a Sony Ericsson P-800 smart phone,” he says. “Like a Blackberry, the phone has Internet access, but it also features an integrated camera and a dial pad with a small stylus.” The P-800 is about the size of most mobile phones and a little smaller than the Blackberry.

What’s New Not Always Best

In some respects, newer is not always better, however. Workers’ compensation administrator Steve Schempp, with FedEx, recently gave away his favorite device, a Compaq miniature computer, manufactured before the debut of Palm Pilots about five years ago, which he purchased for less than $100.00.

This thing had eight megabytes of RAM, and used Windows CE,” Schempp says. “You could plug it into the serial port on a desktop or a laptop computer, and it had active synchronization software for this purpose.”

Unfortunately, size was an issue, Schempp says. “While it had a full set of keyboard characters, a modern card and a touch sensitive screen, it was hard to read what you had written because the screen was so small. It was about an inch wider than a checkbook,” he says. “Unless you were a 3-year-old, your fingers had a hard time typing on the keyboard.” Schempp eventually gave the device to a friend’s eight-year-old child, he says.

Andy Gainey, technophile and corporate risk manager with Collins & Aikman, looked at a number of gadgets at Harrod’s in London this past May. “Notebooks are the wave of the future, but there’s no way Collins & Aikman is going to buy me one,” Gainey says. “They gave me a Dell laptop 400, which weighs more than two pounds, and doesn’t have an internal CDROM,” he says. The notebooks Gainey examined in London went for around $4,000, and Gainey went with a Palm.

One solution to the perennial problem of how to cram an adult risk manager’s thumb into those tiny little keys, may be making its way to the market as we speak this holiday season.

“As I drive around, 1 see more and more doctors and lawyers speaking apparently into the air,” says Schempp. “They’re dictating files and dictating Word documents. It takes a while for the software to learn your inflections (for instance, how do you spell ‘laminectomy’ ?), but if you can link that sort of technology to a cell phone or a handheld PC and are able to email messages, that will drastically reduce the size of these things,” he says.

Schempp, who has personally coached many lawyers on the use of this software, noted that Dragon voice-operated software is available for only slightly more than $50.00, and that IBM has a voice-activated product as well.

But the most useful development of all, as far as technology is concerned, would be the concentration of all of these techniques. “Just as cell phones are becoming much more elaborate, we’re seeing the migration of technology to wireless activity in phones, and you’ll see them replacing checkbooks, pagers and other items you lug around,” Schempp says. “Nonetheless, you still see a lot of people lugging around a laptop, a cell phone and a Palm Pilot,” he noted.

Steve Lance, an area vice president for software vendor Questerra, is on the road at least three days a week and keeps in touch with his data servers through his Dell laptop computer and Blackberry e-mail pager. Cell phones are second-nature to Lance and many of his peers.

But the greatest technology gift of all, he says, is integration–integration between hardware like pagers, Blackberry devices, cell phones and laptops, and integration between software, like voice-recognition programs, e-mail programs and data retrieval programs.

“For instance, more integration with your machines at home would be a huge value point,” he says. “Blackberries have been around for four years, and you can download a spreadsheet, but a large PowerPoint attachment of two or three megabytes probably won’t work well. So they’ll send you an e-mail telling you the attachment came in. Or if you’re computing at home, you can’t put the Blackberry on your home network. It’s coming, though,” Lance says. When a risk manager is at a client site, access to a company’s claims data can be the most important duty of all.

But while insurers are getting better at putting all of this data on their Web sites, making the data accessible is simply a task none of the miniature handheld devices has managed to do very well at all, despite memory and speed increases.

Collins & Aikman’s Gainey says that integration still has a way to go. “When I try to access my insurer’s databases while in Germany, let’s say its AonLine or AIG’s Intellirisk, I don’t have the ability to look at Microsoft Access on my handheld, so I put them on a spreadsheet,” he says. “The biggest problem is that the size of the spreadsheet makes it difficult to maneuver around the screen.”

The failure is particularly galling, because with expansion chips, some PDAs go all the way up to five megabytes, Gainey says. “I’ve seen some patches that do this, but I’m afraid to try them unless I’ve seen someone else use them first, because when I do, my device always crashes,” he says. (One of Collins & Aikman’s insurers is working on a technique to make these databases available on a handheld, but is not ready yet to come forward with the details.)

Gainey’s co-worker, John Devic, agrees. “I can access Word and Excel documents with my smart phone, and I can look at my address book, but I don’t use it for accessing databases.” While Devic, whose most recent handheld device was a Toshiba Genjo PDA, complained that many Web pages are not received by handhelds, he noted that Yahoo! has a site devoted specifically to smaller devices.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Axon Group

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group