In an effort to foster an Internet-enabled health plan, and to eliminate much of the traditional paperwork, Louisville, KY-based Humana Inc., is moving much of its operations to the Web. The hope is that the process will cut paperwork costs and provide anyone involved with the health care giant with the most current information available.

TechRepublic recently spoke with Humana’s CIO Bruce Goodman on March 29, the day the company was rolling out a beta version of its new Internet product.

TR: What will the architecture entail?
Goodman: It’s going to have four distinct portals or doorways for getting into the site, plus a fifth one for visitors.

TR: Have you developed new applications to work with these new portals?
Goodman: It’s a combination of things. Basically, we have an approach called “partner before buy and buy before build.” So we’ve taken advantage of the literally hundreds of e-solutions vendors out there and are partnering with various ones and are purchasing things from others and building some. We’re doing all of that.

TriZetto [an application service provider (ASP) that serves health care organizations] is a big partner for us in terms of providing a number of the applications for Web pages for primarily the member and physician portals. And we hook that back. What we basically do is we have multiple claim systems.

We look at it as a three-layer architecture:

  1. The e-business layer
  2. The core platform layer
  3. The corporate information factory layer

The e-business layer is where we have the connectivity to the various stakeholders with the four external portals and then a self-service Intranet for our own employees.

In the core is our multiple claims systems, basically our managed-care administration systems, which do claims and billing and eligibility and reporting capabilities. And in the corporate information factory is where we have our data warehouses that generate the knowledge that we use to help people.

In every one of those layers, we’re enhancing our capabilities and making sure they work smoothly together.

TR: What is the release date for the five new portals?
Goodman: Tonight. We’ve got a whole bunch of folks running around seeing if we’re at a point where we can do a soft launch tonight and get the new beta capabilities out there tomorrow.

TR: What are some of the challenges you face when you try to go live with something like this? What are some of the last-minute things you check?
Goodman: Performance issues such as making sure that we’re squared away on privacy issues, which is very important in our environment especially. Data integrity issues such as whether we have clean enough data, so we’re not giving someone a portal for the garbage bin.

TR: Considering the sensitivity of patient information, what kinds of privacy measures do you have in place? Do you take any special precautions?
Goodman: We use all the encryption techniques that are out there in terms of transmitting any of the data. The other thing we have is a very positive password registration process. It’s the same thing that brokerage firms use, so you can’t really get your password and get out to your information right then and there.

We’ve got to mail you something after the fact and make sure we know who you are and that we’ve got your right address of record. And we only mail the password; you have to remember your ID. So, we’re pretty careful in terms of who gets the password.

TR: Are there any challenges that are specific to health care organizations?
Goodman: We have multiple administration systems, legacy systems, but we’ve had to provide a uniform interface across them.

TR: As a CIO of an established company, how do you compete in recruiting IT talent against companies that may soon have IPOs?
Goodman: I constantly look for those opportunities for myself. Just kidding. That’s probably one of the advantages of having a fair number of the people based here in Louisville. We’re growing people with interesting skills. We take a little bit of a risk on that, but we’re giving them very challenging work.

They’re working extremely hard. They’re growing their skills sets, and if there were a lot of other businesses doing this in this area or on the scale we were doing it, we probably would have some serious retention problems, but we’re in pretty good shape here.

There are a lot of other Web companies [in Louisville] but none of our scale, and we’re probably the largest IT employer in the general area right now. We’re pretty close, especially doing the kind of work we’re doing.

We’ve had almost a complete turnaround over the last couple of years with people making the commitment to IT as the transformer of our business model. That’s really different. Now that the baton has been passed to a great extent to the IT organization to deliver on the vision, everyone in the organization is out there and they really feel like they’re making a difference.

In any company, people that have been with you for a while form certain attachments, and giving them an opportunity to make a difference and grow professionally is one of the retention tools that you have.

Having said that, there are potentially opportunities down the road where we might form spin-offs ourselves. We’re not aggressively pursuing that now, but that’s a possibility. There may be an opportunity for people to get stock options in our own IPO at some point in time.

TR: Are there any skill sets you’re providing to keep your employees marketable within your company?
Goodman: We just rolled out a whole computer-based training curriculum. Simple things like basic Internet 101 all the way up the scale in terms of complexity, and we’re encouraging people to hone their skills. We’ve built a skills inventory database that we go into and we ask our associates to keep that up to date and base new assignments on what’s in there. We’re trying to grow in that area.

TR: Do you feel that there’s a big demand for skills building within your business?
Goodman: We did some surveys last year of our IT associates and based [what was offered] on those surveys. And then we had a series of “all hands” meetings over the last couple of months and have gotten a lot of feedback on issues from our associates, and that’s one of the reasons we rolled out a fairly aggressive training program.

TR: Do you see the CIO’s responsibilities being taken on by a chief Web office and a chief Web officer, or do you think CIOs can maintain their positions?
Goodman: I think it’s undergoing dramatic change as we speak. I don’t know if I know the difference between a CIO and a CTO: I’ve been both. Somebody in the organization ends up leading the technology direction. If you can have one person that is well founded in the real-world problems of the day-to-day support as well as having to help define the strategic vision—how to enable a business to be successful—that’s good.

When I first started in the business a long time ago, the IT organization was pretty invisible to the rest of the company. If you use the analogy of peeling the layers of an onion, it was many, many layers in before you got to IT. There was a …data center somewhere that clerical people used and nobody ever saw it. They only knew about something going wrong when their reports didn’t show up on their desks.

What’s happened over the years—and it’s certainly been accelerated enormously with the Internet—is that IT now has windows to the real customers, and IT is the delivery mechanism to the customers. We’re at the table with the marketing people, on sales calls, in terms of talking to customers about what they would like to see. We’re at the table in product design. We’re at the table in customer services, because now customer service is the first line of self-service, what the IT organization is delivering. And human beings in a call center only come in after somebody can’t be satisfied either by a voice response or by a self-service, interactive Web session.

So all of a sudden IT is out there, exposed to the real-end world. IT is involved in making strategic partnerships. I’m almost attached at the hip with our venture capital department. Because what we try to do is when we see new companies, we say, ”Okay, will these people help us move our vision forward? Will we do an operating license arrangement with them? At the same time, does it make sense to make an investment in this company?“ So we can benefit when they take an IPO at the company level. We’ve done that. We have ownership capabilities at TriZetto and at other companies, such as Benefit

The role of the CIO/CTO has significantly changed. The CIO used to report to the chief financial officer in many companies.

What did they do? They basically did accounting and bookkeeping and things like that. Now [the focus is] sales force automation. It’s being out there with mobile devices coming in. It’s all the collaboration and the knowledge management. It’s just an enormous transformation of the IT role in a company.

I think the thing you have to keep in mind when you look at roles like chief marketing officers and chief financial officers is that those kinds of concepts have been around for a long time. CIO is a very new, immature role, but it certainly is changing drastically as this Internet thing blows out. Any company that views IT as strategic has IT reporting to the CEO and sitting at the senior management table. It couldn’t be better from my perspective.

TR: Obviously, it demands a whole new set of skills that 10 years ago wouldn’t even be considered necessary.
Goodman: Absolutely. The skills were more for a data center manager 10 years ago. Maybe a data center manager and some routine development delivery. Now it’s “How do you get things quick to market? How do you partner with other companies?” Every thing is in Web years; you’ve got to get things out every three months. It’s a whole different ballgame.

[The question is] how to be a strategic visionary? How to market [the vision] internally to the other senior people in the company? How to be a damn good listener so you’ll understand where the company is trying to go. You have to educate the rest of the management team in terms of what information technology can deliver to the company—because that’s not their business. You have to learn the business, learn where the leverage points are, and then educate the rest of the senior management team so that they can understand it and work it into their business plan.

TR: How do you do that? Do you send lots of e-mail? Do you send binders full of papers? Do you hold seminars? How do you distribute this information to the people that need to get it?
Goodman: One of the things that we do is called “brown-bag lunches,” where we’ll take topics that we think are of significant interest and just invite the senior leadership team. They bring their lunch and we’ll give them the presentation to try to get them to understand what’s new, what we can do, where we are, and where we think we’re going.

We also get involved in their business planning process. At all different layers in the organization, we have people sitting at the table describing what’s do-able. We bring vendors in all the time, and we invite the business and medical people to the table when the vendors come in to see the demos. I have a unit full time that does nothing but keep track of the hundreds of vendors and bring the ones in that we think are appropriate and expose the business people to them.

Then if we get excited by a particular vendor, we have a very fast track to bring them into the fold, both from an investment point of view and an operating point of view.

TR: Do you use intranets or extranets if someone has questions about a subject or product?
Goodman: We have a vendor database available on the intranet, and anybody can go out there and look up that vendor, or look up the subject matter that the vendor is involved in. People get too much e-mail as it is. Loading people down with e-mail or loading them down, God forbid, with paper, that’s the last thing you want to do.

We don’t want to tell them how to use their time, but when we sit at the table, we certainly try to alert people to opportunities. We have a group within IT called the Relationship Management Group. They go out, and they really live in the businesses. They bring the technology demonstrations to those groups as well.

Like with our Operations Center. We had a joint, two-day planning meeting where people came from both the business area and the IT area and sort of exchanged information on what we were all doing.

We depend on our Relationship Managers to get those things going.

We’re constantly finding new vendors, and we try to see how we can fit them into the overall objective of totally Web-enabling the company by transforming and using the Web. We’re going from “Humana” to “eHumana”.
Tell us about your experiences with rolling out the new Web-based side of your company by posting a comment below or sending us an e-mail.