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Business Transformation in Action

Joe McKendrick

'Special' Gives Way to 'Service-Oriented' at Allstate

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Everyone considers their systems to be "special" in many ways. They represent years of planning, installations, and modifications. However, sometimes "specialness" can get in the way of the ability to deliver agility and flexibility to business clients.

At the recent Tibco TUCON users' conference in San Francisco, Allstate's vice president of technical solutions, Anthony Abbatista, described how his company managed to automate most of its systems and processes in the 1960s and 1970s with what was in it's time a new generation of "special applications." Everything from policy administration to underwriting was captured on the company's array of mainframe computers.

Of course, application designers in these first waves of automation could never have imagined the uses that their systems would be getting nowadays. They never could have envisioned parts of these systems being opened up to the world via the Web.

These systems, Abbatista explained, were all hand-crafted and hand-coded. Commercial off-the-shelf applications just didn't exist in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the Allstate commitment to rolling its own applications continued right up to recent years. At Allstate everything was custom-built, "and we were proud of that," he said. "everything was very 'special,' with limited reuse."

Adding to the complexity and inflexibility, the company had a plethora of systems and vendors for the commercial solutions it did start buying. "Up until five years ago, we never met a software vendor we didn't like," Abbatista said.

The company, which now has $156 billion in assets and 17 million customers, always had plenty of resources for information technology. However, the company needed more responsive and agile IT solutions to succeed in an increasingly competitive environment for the insurance industry.

"When I first arrived at Allstate, we had three to five different integration platforms," Abbatista related. "We had an executive IT board that mirrored the military model, run by 'generals.' We had an abundance of point-to-point integration."

Allstate knew that it needed to embark on a more consolidated, service oriented architecture if its systems were to continue to deliver value.

Areas being modernized include claims processing, which was spread across nine different mainframe-based silos tied together by custom-built middleware. The company employed a standard enterprise service bus to handle claims processing through a single interface across the entire enterprise.

Another initiative was to establish a common integration layer for the company's fast-growing data environment. "Our data hubs are growing 30%-40% a year," Abbastista said. The company also pared down its vendor list to a "handful of strategic partners," numbering 12 to 15 vendors, he said.

Changing the organizational culture was another challenge, Abbatista remarked. "We had to make a substantial commitment to technology, skills, and also selling integrated teams that we had a better approach," he said. SOA governance was also tied to the operations of the procurement organization. This helped provide better visibility of available services, as well as increase reuse, he said. "How many error-logging services did we really need?" he asked.


In this blog (formerly known as "SOA in Action"), Joe McKendrick examines how BPM and related business and IT approaches can promote business transformation.

Joe McKendrick

Joe McKendrick is an author and independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. View more


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