Blue Cross & Blue Shield

Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island beats Y2K deadline

A Y2K problem without a solution led to the development of an innovative customer service application in less than a year at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI).

The new customer service system is based on an internally developed architecture that Keane Inc. Innovator Awards judges lauded as modular and flexible enough to easily allow for system upgrades and the incorporation of new technology. Failure to complete the project — and to eliminate potential Y2K problems — could have caused serious problems for BCBSRI.


Project: Blue Ribbon 2000

Purpose: To build a modular customer service system to replace a non-Y2K-compliant system by September 1999.

Benefits: Eliminated Y2K issues; allows for extending to the Internet.

Platforms: Windows NT Server, Windows 98/95 clients

An important objective for the architecture's creators, according to Jeff Meyer, director of strategic development at the Providence-based insurer, was to ensure that it retained the interface of the older system while "we changed everything under the covers." It was important that the development team extend the "look and feel" of the older system to the new one, to allow the insurer's customer service representatives to use the system without special (and costly) training classes. And, he said, the new architecture had to support extensions to the World Wide Web.

The decision to build a new customer service system, a mission-critical application that monitors and records communications with policy holders, was made in mid-1998 when IT officials determined that the existing proprietary system could not be made Y2K compliant. The insurer's first move was to seek out proposals from suppliers of packaged customer service/ CRM systems, but that plan was quickly scratched when "the costs would have been far higher than expected," Meyer said. Those projected $1 million-plus costs included the price of the app itself and the cost of integrating that software with the installed proprietary BCBSRI claims system, he said.


Sybase EAServer, Sybase PowerBuilder, Riverton HOW

The unit then decided to build the system using the PowerBuilder development toolset and Version 3.0 of the Enterprise Application Server (aka Jaguar) from Sybase Inc. A variety of other tools were also used to help build a three-tier system that would allow a variety of thin clients to use business logic sitting in the middle tier on EAServer and distributed PowerBuilder components.

Meyer said his unit chose the Sybase tools and application server because of its experience with PowerBuilder. The project was vital, he said, and "we didn't want to have to introduce another skill set" to the developers. The Sybase application server was selected for its tight integration with PowerBuilder, which offered the promise of a familiar environment to build components, whose logic could be automatically deployed to the Windows NT-based EAServer, where it could be integrated with data residing on the BCBSRI mainframe. The tight integration between PowerBuilder and EAServer also promised that the new system could be extended to the Internet, Meyer said.

Once an architecture was designed internally and a development plan began to form by Thanksgiving 1998, the team brought in consultants from the Middleware Consulting Group, Walpole, Mass., to assess and validate the blueprint. That assessment was completed and the plan validated by consultants by the end of 1998, with internal work on the project beginning in January 1999, Meyer said.


Jeffrey Meyer (pictured)
Kevin McGovern
David Hampton
Mike Bell
Laura Pouliot
Chris Youngclaus
Olga Demidova
Paul Dudley

A team from Middleware Consulting Group then stayed on to help BCBSRI's internal developers build the system, Meyer said. The newly developed intranet application was deployed on July 1, 1999. The IT unit moved to gradually phase in the system to 10 workstations a week to ensure its stability and scalability, and to give developers time to more easily react to installation and implementation issues, said Meyer. By September 1, the Blue Ribbon 2000 application was available to more than 100 Windows 98-based clients. Since then, the customer service unit has averaged about 1,800 daily calls and more than 20,000 transactions a day over the system.

The project team included five full-time developers using RAD techniques, a project manager and a part-time technical architect. The group utilized a technical expert from the consulting group to provide additional support to ensure that the architecture would support the new application and planned enhancements.

To ensure that features could be added as needed, the architecture's modular and flexible design allowed for modules of specific functionality to be implemented quickly as needed. Developers used the HOW component development and deployment environment from Riverton Corp., Burlington, Mass., to map out the component architecture and to generate objects and skeleton code.

As hoped, Meyer said the new three-tier architecture allows IT developers to reuse the new systems logic, and ensures that middle tier (EAServer) app information is consistent across the organization.

Meyer noted that BCBSRI has already built a Web-based customer service app — described as a "portal for members" — that leverages the new architecture. "We hear about companies spending millions to enable customer service on the Internet. We'll be doing it for a lot less," he said.
— Michael W. Bucken


Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island's new customer service system has already realized an ROI of $500,000, boosts in user productivity, significant strides in system performance and increased data accuracy.

The development team adhered to a phased-rollout approach, Rapid Application Development Methodology, used several productivity tools and techniques, as well as performance monitoring tools and heavy user involvement to ensure the quality of the system throughout its life cycle. Despite a delay, the project met its target dates.

We were impressed by the decision to closely duplicate the user interface of the old system, which minimized the need for user training and improved user acceptance of the new system.

BCBSRI also had the foresight to call in a technical consultant to assist in the planning of the architecture and to ensure support for system growth in the future. The team has begun a follow-on project to explore the possibilities the Web has to offer.

BCBSRI's new customer service system embraces many of the new technologies available in today's fast-paced IT environments and leverages the investment in legacy systems, including an IBM mainframe and IMS and DB2 applications. The integration, power and scalability of their solution is truly exemplary.

Team Leader:
Daniel Suppin, director of frameworks development

Team Members:
Judy Meadows, senior principal consultant in Keane's corporate project management service organization; and Ann Schmenk, principal consultant with Keane's methodology development group