The successor to i2i-link will be E-Market. Dermott White explains what's on offer

The closure of Brokersoft last week was another reminder to an already suspicious insurance industry of the uncertain technology environment.

Brokersoft attributed its demise to apathy among the IT-buying broker market, but perhaps there simply wasn't enough business to sustain it and its competitors.

If the Brokersoft situation has left the broking community feeling even more sceptical about the IT industry why, then, should they be enthusiastic about Polaris E-Market? Why should this initiative succeed where others, notably i2i-link, have failed?

For Polaris board member and Norwich Union electronic trading manager Phil Nunn the main success factor will be "a collective will and a common acceptance that this needs to be done".

A surprising statement, given the reluctance within the industry to upset the status quo: many brokers prefer to continue with their familiar, if outdated, systems.

However, this time the insurance industry seems to have got its act together with the backing of the major insurers, the brokers and even the software houses.

Nunn says the basic concept of i2i was to do something together to make life easier for all the insurance community. This has not changed. But what has changed, he says, is what Polaris E-Market is trying to achieve.

"I2i-link was about reducing the time in getting an insurer's rates to a broker, from weeks to days.... whereas this is about trying to find a tangible benefit for a broker as well as the insurer."

Easy access
The system is an electronic business-to-business hub. Put simply, it allows non-employees of insurance companies authorised access to data on insurers' websites.

A broker can log on to just one website and then access all affiliated insurer's websites, together with other options, through a services index. The usual security features complete the basic package.

For example, if a broker wants a quote, he has to complete only one form and then chose which insurers to send it to. If he has a no claims discount rating inquiry, he goes to the appropriate insurer's site for the information.

Not only that, Nunn claims it won't cost brokers any more than they pay already: most have PCs and internet connections - all that is needed to use the site.

Nunn says Polaris E-Market will also succeed because of IBM's experience on similar systems - IBM has won the tender to set the site up, and the lessons it learned in trying to make i2i-link work.

But more important than that is the price.

"The size of the investment [for insurers], the risk, is a far more palatable cost," says Nunn.

The actual cost involved for insurers has not been released, but Nunn stresses that it is "single-figure millions" and relatively small compared to previous figures.

That lower-risk mentality is consistent with the decision to use tried-and-tested technology and systems - which may also calm doubting brokers' nerves.

Polaris managing director Martin McLachlan says the basic technical facilities are "out of the box", and not built especially for Polaris.

"Single sign-on has been implemented hundreds of times. So we're not using rocket-science technology," he says. "The services index is a concept that has existed for a number of years and has been implemented many times."

He adds that the intention is to customise the offering by working with insurers and brokers to find out what services they want, or need, to add to the package.

That inclusiveness in the development of the system is intended to contribute to a successful launch.

Polaris has already gained feedback about E-Market from over 50 brokers. It intends to spend the next six to eight months conducting workshops with brokers across the country. This is to explain the system's current potential and to establish their specific requirements.

McLachlan says initial research shows brokers want easy access to information, automatic accounts reconciliation, policy information and commercial lines rating. Faster personal lines rating updates was not one of their priorities.

Polaris E-Market can coexist with current broker systems. Initially, brokers will use their standard web browsers to access the system.

McLachlan says this will improve a broker's status because the new system provides services that are unavailable on current broker systems.

"At some stage, and we have had discussions, software houses will be keen to integrate this into their systems so it all appears as one system," says McLachlan.

He adds that insurers outside the six main investors will not be excluded from the process. There are ongoing discussions with insurers we will be pursuing over the next few weeks and months."