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Audioconferencing Ensures Reduced Travel Time and Cost for Insurer.

Last April, the Telecommunications Department at Lincoln National received requests from two major divisions of our Fort Wayne, Indiana-based operation for recommendations on how they could reduce travel time and dollars.

These two divisions, Lincoln National Pensions and Lincoln National Group, were similar in that each had a number of geographically dispersed field offices. People responsible for the direct management of these offices were spending up to 60 percent of their time on the road shuttling between locations. The initial objective of the study was to alleviate as much of this travel as possible.

As the study progressed, however, a number of communications problems emerged that lent themselves to a telecommunications solution.

Procedural changes and other information were seldom received in field offices soon enough. In the Lincoln National Group division, this problem was especially acute because their automated claims system required that procedural changes be received and understood promptly.

Because field office managers had no mechanism for regular discussions with their peers in other offices around the country, there was virtually no information sharing on day-to-day work flow or problems. This resulted in duplication of efforts as well as the loss of peer-group communications.

An interesting phenomenon was discovered, one that we eventually dubbed "the outpost syndrome." The division field offices were geographically dispersed into relatively small communities of two to a dozen people. Management directives and other corporate information was received only through relatively "sterile" mediums such as memos and company newpapers. Field office employees, in many cases, perceived themselves as second-class citizens serving the nameless and facelss entity known as "home office management." We decided early on to consider this a problem worth addressing.

For some time, Lincoln National has used "Quality-Commitment" or "qc" circles. This program is designed to encourage employee peer groups to develop suggestions for productivity enhancement. Although the program had produced dramatic results in the home office, it was difficult to promote to field-office personnel who had no effective interaction with their home-office peers. Analyzed All Needs

As we continued to define the areas of concern, it became increasingly clear that the right telecommunications solution would need to meet the following criteria: It would have to allow for timely and accurate dissemination of information from home-office-based management to field office locations; it would have to be interactive, allowing the recipient of information to respond in a real-time environment; it would have to provide field office employees with some method of interacting with their peers in locations other than the home office; it would have to be multi-point in nature to allow for the dissemination of information to a number of locations at the same time; it would have to be flexible enough to allow for a variety of user applications from "QC" circles to training; and finally, to encourage usage, it would have to be both user-friendly and sufficiently low cost (The best tool in the world would never be accepted if it is perceived as difficult or expensive to operate).

It didn't take long to recognize that what we needed was an effective audio-teleconferencing program.

Our next steps were to outline the available options. To do this, we broke the technology into three distinct elements:

* Bridging function. We could either purchase a bridge for our own use and fix our costs, or we could lease time from a bridging service that would require little up-front money and would expedite matters.

* Line charges to get from remote locations into the bridge. At an average 40 cents per minute, a one-hour teleconference involving eight locations would cost $198.

* Terminal equipment or conferencing units to be used by the teleconference participants. Early on we decided to use hands-free terminal equipment designed specifically for audio teleconferencing. While it seemed tempting to start off with handsets or speakerphones, we recognized that if the first few conferences were uncomfortable or poor in audio quality it would be an uphill battle to get participants to try again with better equipment and an open mind

Last May, we decided to run two parallel trials of the technology. The Pensions Division chose to lease bridge time from an audio bridging service while the other division elected to trial an on-site bridge. By splitting the trial in this manner, we felt we could get a more accurate comparison of costs as well as quality.

Just before the trial was to begin, all the pension office managers were scheduled to meet in Washington, DC for an annual operations meeting. A portion of this meeting was set aside for a presentation and training session on audio teleconferencing.

By early June the necessary equipment was sent to all eight pension office locations, including the Fort Wayne home office.

All was in place for a routine trial, when an unexpected event threw our controlled environment out the window. The US Supreme Court handed down a ruling that mandated unisex pricing of employee-related benefits. Until this point, pricing was determined by actuarial tables based on a number of characteristics, including sex (women generally live longer than men).

This ruling required a massive overhaul of the entire insurance industry, spanning virtually all products and all lines of business. To further compound the problem, the insurance companies had three weeks to bring their products into compliance.

For a company the size and structure of Lincoln National, this meant sweeping changes in pricing, marketing and operational support. A high-level task force, representing all affiliate organizations and product lines, was formed to attack the problem.

Because task-force members were geographically dispersed between several locations in the United States and Canada, the newly installed teleconferencing resources were diverted for their exclusive use. Locations not already equipped with audio terminal equipment were shipped units on an emergency basis and untrained personnel were given a hasty training session on teleconferencing organization and etiquette.

Over the five-week life span of the task force, the following were accomplished over 700,000 individual documents were produced, in one operation alone, over 140,000 contracts were amended and in another operation, over 3,000 employee benefit plans were amended.

In achieving this record, the task force conducted six major audioconferences plus several smaller conferences involving work groups of three to four individuals.

In phase one, the teleconferences were designed to transmit information down from the top and to impress the task force members with the magnitude of the problem.

Phase-two teleconferences consisted of policy coordination sessions where task force members developed an overall plan on how the problem should be addressed.

In phase three, the audioconferences were primarily for status reports and assigning tasks. The conferences were particularly useful in the tasking functions because participants could ask for and receive clarification on their assignments. Group participation also minimized the possibility of duplicating efforts.

Merit Smith, operations manager for the task force, reports, "An outsider looking in would think there would be no hope of ever solving the problem within the three-week time frame, but we did. The after-action report will state that, in retrospect, we could not have been successful had we not used teleconferencing at several critical points in the process."

The second trial more closely represented the controlled study we initially envisioned. We decided audio conferencing would be used first for the Group Division's semi-weekly management status meetings conducted by the seven field offices in the western region.

With the help of our national account team from AT&T Communications, several steps were taken to assure the success of the first conference. Much attention was given to the preparation of an agenda. It had to be structured enough to keep the meeting flow in line, but not so structured that participants felt restricted from offering creative input. The Western regional manager who would act as conference moderator was taken through a "dry run" on the audio bridge to familiarize her with the various characteristics of audioconferencing. Procedures for getting into the conferencing bridge were established, for both the participants and the bridge attendant. Procedures were established for scheduling bridge time for subsequent teleconferences.

The first audioconference took place on schedule with encouraging results. It is interesting to note that although we expected to have a one-hour session, the Conference lasted almost twice that long. At first we were concerned this might have been a sign of poor audio quality or an ineffective agenda. We later discovered, however, that the participants were so enthusiastic about the teleconferencing medium they were collectively speaking longer and more often than could have been predicted.

Since that time, the Group Division's use of the medium has been expanded to include teleconferences for training and quality-commitment circles for both the Western and the Eastern regions. Currently the division is holding an average of two audioconferences per week, with the average conference lasting an hour.

In the course of both trials we tested out a number of different bridges and audio terminal systems. When it came to a bridge, the first question was whether to lease time from an outside supplier or to purchase our own. This decision came down to economics.

One of the suppliers who helped us greatly in the tests was International Telecom Systems of Madison, Wisconsin. With the number of conferences we planned, ITS offered to lease us bridge time at $10 per port per hour. Purchasing comparable equipment costs $20,000 to $40,000, depending on the number of ports. Line Charges Made Difference

For us, the real difference between buying and leasing was line charges. By locating a bridge at Lincoln's Fort Wayne headquarters we could take advantage of our WATS lines. Regional offices in San Francisco and other remote locations could connect to the conference at an average 30 cents per minute, as opposed to 40 cents per minute for direct-dialing Madison.

Our studies showed that five or more teleconferences per month justified the investment in a bridge.

Although we tested a very promising full-duplex bridge developed by a small company, our final decision was a 14-port, half-duplex system from AT&T Information Systems priced at $30,000.

On terminal equipment, we did decide in favor of a small supplier, Teletek Systems in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

The Teletek Conferencer employs a small, inconspicuous microphone module, six inches in diameter. Voices are picked up in a 360-degree radius and transmitted via antenna to a voice-activated control unit. Only one module is needed to cover our 18-foot table.

To date we have equipped two conference rooms with the Teletek system, which cost less than $4,000 each.

In the field offices, where only one or two people would participate in a conference, we've installed push-to-talk microphones and inexpensive control units.

We are now equipped to handle conferences between 14 locations. We have developed a number of training materials for potential users, and are beginning a series of presentations to managers announcing the availability of the network.

This year, we expect that the number of conference rooms equipped for audio-conferencing will increase from two to 25. We are also exploring the addition of an audiographics system capable of transmitting charts graphs and other text.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Noble, B.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Apr 1, 1984
Words:1846
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