For bank-based insurance agents frustrated by the ordeal of getting information quickly from numerous insurers' systems, an industry standard may be around the corner.

Agents typically must plug in the same data to several systems to get information for clients.

"I think the insurance companies have some of the sloppiest software systems out there," said Richard H. Klovstad, vice chairman and chief executive officer of PNC Insurance Services in Pittsburgh. "What has to happen is, these companies have to work on a similar architecture."

And they are doing so. In May the first glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon. Acord, a 30-year-old Pearl River, N.Y.-based association of 1,000 insurance companies and 32,000 agencies, promised to unveil a common language by early fall.

And this month International Business Machines Corp. and Sun Microsystems said they would release codes to software developers for IBM's Insurance Application Architecture model and Sun Microsystems' Java. The move is expected to benefit insurers that use IBM's model and want to buy software that is tailored to their needs but compatible with other systems.

Kevin A. Schipani, group manager research and development for Acord, said IBM and Sun have been working with Acord to ensure their proprietary product will be compatible with the components-based standards Acord is developing.

Though the initiative by IBM and Sun will benefit those who are licensed to use IBM's Insurance Application Architecture model, Mr. Schipani said, it won't further the standards movement on its own.

But Acord's standard would be industrywide. The trade group said in May that it would use XML, or extensible markup language, in conjunction with its existing object standards to create a common vocabulary.

Acord is moving rapidly because "if everybody comes up with their own XML dictionary then nobody will be able to achieve one standard," Mr. Schipani said.

Dermot Duggan, global insurance manager for Sun Microsystems, agreed that an industry standard is needed. "What the industry does not need is competing architectures," he said at a recent press conference.

Robert Stein, a partner in and national director of the financial services industry practices group of Ernst & Young, said the current lack of commonality limits agent productivity. An agent whose bank signs on a new underwriter is faced with "a new nightmare" in learning yet another system, he said.

Some banks require underwriters to meet bank-set standards to minimize the differences, Mr. Stein said.

PNC's approach is to work with software underwriters to bridge existing and new systems, Mr. Klovstad said.

USAA, on the other hand, is part of the group working with IBM and Sun. Andres Perez, the information technology architect for the San Antonio insurance company, said the IBM-Sun initiative would allow smoother integration without "having to do (the) brain surgery in our systems that we have to do today."

"It's a very painful process for us to make any changes," he said. "Costs are very, very large because our systems were not designed to be integrated."

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