Companies try intranet as benefits tool

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Chicago-based CNA Insurance started using its intranet as an internal communications tool, allowing employees to view their own paychecks and paystubs, change their 401(k) allocations and query benefits that once were all on paper.

Now, the human resources department has taken a quantum leap by offering training and distance learning to CNA's cache of intranet offerings.

"It's amazing how HR and employees have embraced this," says Robert Hamilton, VP-e-commerce at CNA.

As the cost and complexity of management grow, companies increasingly are exploring intranet opportunities. Some are even asking insurance providers and other vendors to post information for employees on corporate intranets before they'll do business with them.

"Ten to 15% of companies now say that [vendors] have to do this, to increase the efficiencies within their organizations," says Bob Gear, president of Chicago agency Two-Way Communications, which has introduced the vision of using intranets to insurance companies, including CNA.

"We tell them to do this because it is a value to their company because it is going to save them money," Mr. Gear says. "It's the future."

A requirement

Says Bill Perry, a spokesman for Two-Way, "CNA might make it part of its requirement that some vendors display [requests for proposals] on CNA's intranet if they want to compete for a bid."

CNA has formed a panel with marketing and IT representatives to brainstorm ways to use the company intranet, including allowing outside vendors to connect their extranets to CNA's intranet, and allowing insurance agents to access claims status at any time, rather than receiving a monthly paper statement by mail.

"We tip over a lot of sacred cows in the [Web] industry," Mr. Hamilton says. "Initially, many people were convinced Web-type environments should be used to sell commodity insurance products. That barely scratches the surface of the applicability of these environments."

Another company that's trying to expand use of its intranet is Eli Lilly. Company spokesman Fritz Fromeyer said the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company is still mapping out its strategy for the technology.

One company that's working to provide information to intranets is Interactive Media Communications in Mont Clair, N.J. Patrick Fitzmaurice, director of business operations for IMC, is working to bring the company's kiosk-based personal health-care information into the intranet medium.

IMC works with a consortium of companies developing wellness, stress management, cholesterol, smoking and weight management programs, and presents them on interactive kiosks in doctor offices.

The concept will be expanded to intranets in the near future, Mr. Fitzmaurice says.

"Our overall mantra is: How do we provide consumers the information they need when they need it to be an intelligent consumer of health care?" he says. "We really think intranets will be a big area of growth."

Meanwhile, CNA is looking to offer companies access to its group long-term-care extranet, which are Web pages intended to be accessed by other companies' employees so they can read about CNA's long-term-care insurance.

In the future, online enrollment will be available over the extranet.

"The Web is a significant relationship tool for all kinds of people, and there are many ways to leverage the Web for any type of business relationship," Mr. Hamilton says. "We're approaching it as a relationship tool."

Saving time, money

CNA has already found that its Intranet is a cost and time-saver, which has created some intangible benefits, as well.

The Web "is an efficient way to do things. It's not just an effort to streamline processes; it's not just a ploy to shrink the time cycle. In the long term, this use of the Web to conduct core business is about entering a learning relationship with customers and partners," Mr. Hamilton says.

He says CNA saves the cost of expensive printed material for employees and customers, which pays for the infrastructure of the Web-based communications tools.

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