All insurance businesses look on paper as a necessary evil. With so many entwined processes and overlapping needs, insurers desperately require well-defined workflows. At one time in the industry, it got so bad that US insurers used conveyor belts to carry files through multiple departments. The mechanical approach reduced the time it took to move paper files around but did not address the fundamental problem. Sunil Rawlani, head of information systems and technology at HDFC Standard Life Insurance Company (HDFCSL), knew he was not going to put his money on a conveyor belt. He determined to unclog the business by introducing digitised content, automated workflows and more agile, reengineered processes. “Electronic content management and digitisation of workflow was imperative,” says Rawlani. In 2003, HDFCSL embarked on a project to cut the paper chase and embrace business process management (BPM).

Drowning in paper

The Mumbai-headquartered HDFCSL, a joint-venture between the UK’s mutual life assurance company Standard Life and HDFC, was established in 2000 to tap into India’s fast-growing life insurance market. As one of the first private life insurance companies in India, HDFCSL’s operations were characterised by manual processes that were multiplying fast to keep up with business requirements.

As HDFCSL grew, its manual processes started to crack under the pressure. Multiple systems to handle status queries or communicate new management decisions made process controls inconsistent and inefficient, hitting the organisation’s ability to measure performance. All the while, the volume of paper exploded, creating a storage nightmare. Managers’ inability to balance workloads and a lack of insight into productivity created a vicious cycle of inefficiency.

Disorder spread as misplaced documents affected policy turnaround time and created a ripple effect among interlinked files. In a firefighting attempt to stave off chaos, staff at the branch levels began duplicating documents and entered data in two places. This increased the cost of operations and worse, affected HDFCSL’s perceived USP: customer service.

Tackling the problem

HDFCSL deployed a BPM system from Staffware and enterprise content management from FileNet. “This replaced paper with digital files, streamlined and reengineered workflows and created a more agile business,” says Rawlani. But these changes required some of the hardest of IT activities: designing an accurate business process, mapping process to defined algorithms and incorporating people, management and systems. HDFCSL’s IT department did a lot of the spadework. The initial process of identifying key business processes, defining workflow rules and weeding out non-critical processes took three months. “The core BPM team identified key business processes using statistical sampling. The process design was divided into three functions: defining, documenting and reengineering. We prioritised mapping business processes to the BPM platform using a simple concept – address the most painful areas first,” says Rawlani.

The process of mapping and designing is ongoing. “There were many lessons learnt. We were among the first Indian insurance companies to incorporate BPM at this scale and had to come up with an innovative and creative approach,” says Rawlani. It began with the creation of a core BPM team who had to identify key drivers and design processes accordingly. The core team included people from business, HDFCSL’s inhouse IT team and the suppliers. Top of its list was to automate documents and workflows since they wanted paper out of the way, so documents were identified, scanned, indexed and stored on an imaging system. The system includes the most sensitive scanners available, as underwriters need to know if data has been overwritten and manipulated. Early adopter status meant Rawlani had few references to draw on. His response was to build a team from operations, the underwriting department and IT on a tour of insurance companies in other southeast Asian countries. All had used similar BPM and digitised workflow technologies.

“At first, we addressed the business processes in breadth, to automate key front-end features. Then we started to scale the depth of the process. This incremental approach helped us address issues without disrupting work processes. We secured management buy-in by being able to show benefits early on,” says Rawlani.

The automated workflow has benefited the organisation. Apart from the measurable benefits of a 300 per cent improvement on policy turn around, the average time to issue a new policy today is 1.5-2.5 days, down from 5-6 days. The business is offering improved customer service with a more consistent experience. Additionally, it cites improved efficiency, immediate access to documents, tracking policies online, better process manageability and control, and lower cost of ownership.

Treating India’s ills

India is a vast and varied geography with a burgeoning population. One billion people are spread across a landscape where temperatures range from 50 degrees to minus 30 degree Celsius. There is a high infant mortality rate; an unmanageable population per doctor – nearly 70 per cent of the population lives in remote parts; and an average life expectancy of 63 years. India needs telemedicine. A relatively late adopter, it is fast catching up and reaping the benefits of this cost effective, life saving technology. Max Healthcare Institute pioneered telemedicine treatments and medical services through its TeleMed division. It connects primary and specialty healthcare services, by sending through images and other data, to health centres and tertiary hospitals with specialised staff and sophisticated technical equipment. Telemedicine is proving effective in terms of delivering timely treatment to those deprived of good medical facilities, says Pradeep Saha, head of IT for Max Healthcare. “It can bring a physician located hundreds of miles away into an examination room.”

IT’s shortcomings

Sadly, India still lags other countries in terms of its health infrastructure and services. “There is a shortage of computer-savvy healthcare personnel which means the people who suffer most are those in remote areas. There is virtually no exposure to IT applications in the areas where most Indians live,” says Saha. Max Healthcare prepared a blueprint to establish tertiary-level service delivery facilities across rural and urban locations bringing healthcare services closer to the people, regardless of their location. The aim was to connect healthcare personnel and physicians in remote areas and keep them current in medical knowledge and skills. They wanted to educate and train doctors who were unable to access training because of geographical and monetary constraints. “Doctors in remote areas seldom get an opportunity to attend training sessions and telemedicine is a great way of providing online training,” says Saha.

Consultation with experts is a time-consuming job and telemedicine bridges this gap. “If a doctor has a heart patient but is unable to read an electrocardiogram, the images are sent immediately for an expert view. It can save lives and that’s only possible if you have a telemedicine facility with data and voice,” says Saha.
To provide cost-effective services and avoid unnecessary capital and operational expenditure, Max India set up an interface ISDN link between the telemedicine centres and teleconsultants. “The pain area was not the technology but its implementation and maintenance at the remote end because doctors and technicians needed initial training. There were additional problems of downtime but with time, things have improved a lot,” says Saha.There were other issues. “It was not only difficult but impractical to narrate readings of the bedside monitors. There was always a threat of marginal error. The error could turn fatal if the case was critical and immediately needed intervention,” says Saha. This was overcome by adding video and Max India now uses video conferencing equipment so that doctors can collaborate in times of emergencies and critical diagnostics.

Remote care

TeleMed is a real benefit for monitoring patients while they are admitted to intensive care units (ICUs) at remote locations. “The doctor in the local ICU connects patients to the critical care unit of Max Healthcare, while cardiologists review their conditions online and provide expertise and advice to the local doctors,” says Saha.

Patients with chronic ailments have follow-up consultations with their respective consultants while sitting at home or work. For a nominal amount, the patient is given a device that connects to ordinary telephone lines. During the consultation, this device transmits the electrocardiogram and other relevant clinical data to the consultant’s monitor at Max Healthcare.

“We provide a similar facility at the doctor’s premise. So if there is a need for an emergency consultation, doctors in a remote location don’t have to wait for their colleagues to reach the hospital,” says Saha.

Pullquote: It can bring a physician located hundreds of miles away into an examination room
– Pradeep Saha, head of IT, Max Healthcare

A shopper’s paradise

Among the big players in India’s retail space, Shopper’s Stop understands the criticality of scale, availability and experience. It has been an eager adopter of advanced technologies.

“We deployed core merchandising, EPoS applications and ERP in 1998, long before the other players,” says Unni Krishnan, group CTO of Shopper’s Stop. The business includes Shopper’s Stop, HyperCITY, Crossword, Mothercare, Desi CafÈ, Brio and Home Stop.

Many of the business and technological challenges facing the retail sector are similar to those in other industries but what sets retail apart is the sheer volume of transactions and it is this volume that drives the uptake of technology. “Other sectors focus largely on ERP and CRM. We need those and much more because in retail, there are far more touch-points between technology and the consumer,” says Krishnan.

Customer interactions

The automobile industry, for instance, rarely has customers interacting directly with enterprise technologies, apart from a few dealer applications to help customers visualise their car, says Krishnan. But retail creates a large number of customer-technology touch-points, with its self-checkouts, barcode scanners, price-checking systems and anti-theft devices. The number of customers interacting with these systems increases easily from a few hundred to millions in a short period.

“At HyperCITY, we’ve had over a million footfalls in the first three months,” says Krishnan. “At an average of two customer-technology contact points per customer, that’s about two million interactions between customers and our systems in three months,” he says.

“Add the large number of items a customer buys per visit – an average receipt has 30-50 items at a hypermarket – and factor in a 30 per cent sales-conversion of two million footfalls.”

Consumer focused

Technology deployed in a retail environment needs to be robust but it must be intuitive, user-friendly and consistent. “There is a generation gap between us and other retailers as far as technology adoption is concerned. We’ve brought new-age technologies to the Indian retail market, some which others haven’t introduced,” says Krishnan.

Shopper’s Stop has one of the largest installed bases of AutoCAD software, says Krishnan, because the chain uses CAD technologies to craft, draw and plan new stores. At the last count, the group had over 20 Shopper’s Shop stores and 30 Crosswords outlets.

The business is about to deploy a system to optimise store-to-floor space ratio called Intactix. It should help store managers visualise how to stock shelves and achieve optimal sales.

The group was the first to deploy an IBM i550 performance server which allows it to consolidate all business units on a single box while running multiple applications, making it easier to administer and lowering the cost of ownership. “Today, we run four different enterprise applications – primarily merchandising and loyalty applications – catering to six different retail formats and we can implement many more. We are about to install the i570 series of servers running on the Power5+ chipsets, which will boost the disaster recovery capabilities,” says Krishnan.

Shopper’s Stop was also the first in India’s organised retail space to use on-demand sales automation software from Salesforce.com although the application was customised inhouse. “It helps us monitor a large percentage of our gift voucher sales, which is about 10 per cent of Shopper’s Stop’s sales,” says Krishnan.

Supply and demand

However, scaling up to volume transactions while ensuring availability of merchandise is a real challenge.
Shopper’s Stop is rolling out advanced replenishment applications for hypermarkets. Called E3, this software will help HyperCITY analyse inventory trends, refill its shelves faster at lower costs, make better forecasts and tackle the issue of product availability. “In a hypermarket, consumables like bread and juices fly off the shelves,” says Krishnan.

“Replenishing them every two days means we’re filling them about 180 times a year. Should we buy 100 units of a product or 500? One hundred units mean fresher products but more frequent replenishment. Five hundred permits higher discounts to customers but poses a storage problem,” he says. “E3 helps us find the right balance at the right time.”

One of the group’s most innovative uses of technology is iScan, a handheld barcode scanning device for customers to scan merchandise.

When they are ready to checkout, they do not stand in a queue as the merchandise is scanned and billed – saving time and improving customer experience. iScan represents a classic case where a piece of hardware is put to multiple uses by bundling it with different applications.

The same device doubles as a stock-taking system and is also used to receive goods at warehouses. Shopper’s Stop borrowed the multiple-use approach from the automobile industry says Krishnan. “Car manufacturers like Tata Indica and Indigo share the same architectural platform. When you create a common platform, it’s easier to get more uses by tweaking it,” says Krishnan.

Single view

Shopper’s Stop wants to bring all its retail businesses on a common platform and create a consolidated, single view of the customer. Each retail division drives its own business but management wanted to have one view of the business. Five to six years previously the strategy was to grow quickly in different retail formats even if it meant sacrificing a unified view of its operations. Later, it became hard to differentiate growth from the multiple verticals, business relationships and franchises.

“Instead of having a clear view of all our businesses, what we had was a view from a hill. Two years ago, we decided to get a consolidated view while we still had time to create commonality across platforms,” says B Nagesh, managing director and vice-chairman of Shopper’s Stop. “We want to have a single view of customers across all our retail outlets, whether he’s buying coriander leaves at HyperCITY, a shirt at Shopper’s Stop or a cappuccino at Brio,” says Nagesh.

The new challenge for Shopper’s Stop is to be able to balance commonality with creative technologies. “Wherever it is feasible, we try to create common applications across our retail formats,” says Krishnan. But when differentiation is required, the company is willing to take a risk.

Vice-chairman Nagesh adds: “I firmly believe that investing in technology should be on par with investments in real estate, senior management and new buildings. Never hesitate to invest in differential IT.”

Pull quote: I firmly believe that investing in technology should be on par with investments in real estate, senior management and new buildings
B Nagesh, managing director and vice-chairman, Shopper’s Stop

Pull quote: There is a generation gap between us and other retailers as far as technology adoption is concerned
– Unni Krishnan, group CTO, Shopper’s Stop