Underwriting Knowledge

When insurance giant CNA had to consolidate and share what its employees knew, it turned to the Net-and knowledge networks.

FOR GORDON LARSON, telling stories is all in a day's work at his job as chief knowledge officer at CNA, and that's just fine with executives at the Chicago-based insurance giant.

Larson owes his job to a shift in corporate direction. Three years ago, under the direction of a new chairman, CNA set off on a new mission. The ultimate goal, says Karen Foley, CNA's executive vice president of corporate development, was "to get out of the distribution business and become a great underwriting company." And in order to do that, the company had to become more informed about the industries and customers it served.

But CNA's traditional structure of 35 separate strategic business units made sharing internal information among employees nearly impossible. A single customer seeking answers to different insurance needs might be passed along to a variety of departments.

CNA knew it had to create one uniform face to customers, and that meant it had to reeducate its employees. Branch offices would have to be consolidated to facilitate closer working relationships among staff teams. Most important of all, CNA had to equip its employees-many of whom had focused solely on niche markets-with the much broader knowledge of all the company's products. To do that, CNA set about building a Web-based knowledge network that captures the expertise of its employees. And it's that expertise that Larson uses as the fodder for his "knowledge" stories.

A Strategy in Search of a Solution

In 1999, a team of CNA executives evaluated the feasibility of becoming a "great underwriting company," and what they found wasn't pretty. In North America, 175 branch offices supported CNA's 35 business units. In order to create a single face for customers, the executives decided to reorganize the company's business into three major areas: property casualty, life and group benefits, and reinsurance. By December 2001, the trio of new business units was established. CNA is still consolidating its field operations into 75 offices organized around five geographic regions, and that process is expected to be complete by early next year.

Along with the physical reorganization, the very nature of what employees did had to change as well. "Just by reorganizing, we wouldn't get people to change how they think and work with other people," Larson says. "Moving from a decentralized culture to a collaborative one is a major change-management challenge."

As the new "single face" of the company, each employee had to cede narrow product and market expertise to gain general knowledge of the company's entire product portfolio. In the past, a CNA small business customer that wanted additional coverage in the international arena would have to contact another underwriter and complete separate applications. With the new CNA, such customers would get all their needs met through one representative. "We needed to give the frontline underwriter the ability to appear like an expert for a variety of products," Larson says.

But how to make instant experts out of the staff? CNA's offerings include hundreds of products in more than 900 industry segments for both businesses and individuals, and in-depth knowledge was dispersed among 15,000 employees. The company had to figure out how to make the collective expertise of so many employees readily available to anyone, when and where it was needed. And it would have to do so in a way that didn't crimp individual work styles or create undue burdens on employees looking for information. Larson knew the company would have to "make it easy for any individual to have access to people within CNA who had answers and information." Even if that staff was geographically dispersed. Then Larson hit upon the idea of an expert locator system, software that allows employees to post questions and give answers via the Internet or an intranet.

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Working with consultants from Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, a team of CNA managers spent the end of 2000 evaluating numerous expert location software products. In late 2000, the team chose AskMe Enterprise software from AskMe Corp. of Seattle. Factors in AskMe's favor included software that was scalable and capable of being integrated with Microsoft Outlook (already used by the company's employees), which meant a quick implementation. In February 2001, Bob James, CNA executive vice president of the technology and operations group, spearheaded a team of consultants from AskMe's professional services group to customize the software and create a small pilot project of 500 employees. The system, which CNA calls the knowledge network, has since been rolled out companywide and is being actively used by 4,000 employees.

Now if a CNA employee needs someone with underwriting experience in the inland marine industry, for example, he can type in a query and other employees are notified via e-mail that a question in their area of expertise has been posted. When employees answer questions, the software automatically adds to the archive, which eliminates the headache of answering the same question over and over again. Employees who have identified themselves as subject experts are known as knowledge sources. "Our knowledge network is a high-tech, geographically neutral watercooler that enables access to thousands of people," says James.

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