Publisher's Insight: Linguistic Technology
At the recent Gartner Group IT Expo '97 in Orlando, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates revealed that he is "betting the company" on providing the Windows platform with a natural language interface within five years. Linguistic Technology and Bill Gates recognize the importance of natural language query. Natural language query is critical for enabling the typical end users or customers, shielding them from technology considerations. Linguistic Technology's natural language query software, English Wizard, has provided American Express with an intuitive, Web-based query tool for their ExpressLink application. This has allowed their customers to easily interact with the application over the Web, providing tremendous benefits.

American Express Retirement Services-- Planning for the Futureby Sal Seno

As Social Security funding becomes more problematic, life expectancy increases and the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age, retirement services have emerged as a critical component of the financial services industry. Today, more and more companies are sponsoring professionally managed retirement plans on behalf of their employees as part of their benefits packages. The most common type of plan is a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k). Due to the volume and intricacy of these plans, most companies find it both cost effective and efficient to outsource plan administration functions, rather than assume responsibility for managing the accounts themselves.

Founded in 1979, American Express Retirement Services is one of the country's leading providers of retirement services. A division of American Express, one of the world's largest financial institutions, American Express Retirement Services has 340 corporate clients representing 612,000 participants and manages $16 billion in plan assets. In order to service these plans, the Strategic Technology Development Department developed ExpressLink, a PC-based, natural language query tool running on a relational database. ExpressLink allows both American Express Retirement Services plan administrator and their institutional clients to create custom reports and perform ad hoc queries relating to plan administration. These query functions are managed using English Wizard, Linguistic Technology's Internet-enabled, natural language query toolset.

Finding the Answers

Prior to ExpressLink, American Express Retirement Services used SmartData, another proprietary application, to allow internal plan administrators to perform ad hoc queries of the account database. The application featured a traditional data modeling interface based on visual tables, columns and attribute lists. Using these predefined criteria, internal administrators would perform queries such as, "Which employees under the age of 30 are contributing less than 5 percent of their salary?" Fast, accurate and reliable, SmartData enabled American Express to deliver a new level of customer service to institutional clients, by quickly responding to a full range of plan queries and reporting requests. However, when American Express Retirement Services began to explore the possibility of delivering this capability directly to their corporate customers as part of a more comprehensive service strategy, a number of limitations began to arise.

"We had a very valuable internal tool with SmartData, but one that would not meet the needs of our corporate clients," explains Bob Procaccini, director of Strategic Technology Development for American Express. "When we made the strategic decision to build a new version of SmartData for our institutional clients, we were immediately faced with two technical problems. The first was that we needed a query tool that would work over the Internet, since we were planning to build an extranet application. Second, because we were designing for external users with different levels of technical sophistication, we needed a tool that was much more intuitive."

A Natural Fit

American Express Retirement Services began evaluating the different tools that were available at the time, based on functionality, cost and the ability to meet their specific requirements. Linguistic Technology's natural language query software, English Wizard, emerged from this evaluation process as the clear winner. "During the analysis phase of our development, we weren't sure how we were going to deliver ad hoc query and reporting through an Internet-based application," notes Procaccini. "This was around the time that Linguistic Technology was releasing their Web-based version of English Wizard. We were delighted to find a Web-enabled query tool--and absolutely overjoyed to discover that English Wizard also provided the most intuitive interface available anywhere. By incorporating English Wizard into our development plans, both of our major technical issues were resolved."

Based on the enhanced capabilities of Linguistic Technology's software, American Express Retirement Services chose English Wizard as the development and deployment platform for the new ExpressLink application.

In conjunction with that effort, American Express Retirement Services enlisted the services of Seno & Associates, an English Wizard solution provider, to create a customized dictionary for the system. "With this kind of application, you have to be assured that you can answer a complete range of potential client queries," notes Procaccini. "In addition, English Wizard is an unusually rich platform, in that it gives you access to layers of definitions that you can use to align the conceptual and logical aspects of data. That makes it easier to address a breadth of queries using simple, intuitive language."

Once the query capability had been developed and tested, the English Wizard component of ExpressLink was integrated with other system components, including a Web browser, page builder and intranet client software. The completed application gives institutional clients direct, 24x7 access through an extranet link to information about their employee retirement plans. Users simply type in an English sentence and then send it to the server for results. In addition, clients can access a range of functions related to plan administration, including American Express Retirement Services' record-keeping system, text- based plan information, call center data, reports and account team e-mail.

Employee Benefits

American Express Retirement Services found both the development and the deployment of the ExpressLink application to be smooth and easy. "Because English Wizard was already Web-enabled, we were able to take a number of shortcuts," explains Procaccini. "The only real development work we had to do involved integrating English Wizard with our home page and working with Seno & Associates to build our customized dictionaries." American Express Retirement Services has emerged from the pilot phase and is now rolling out ExpressLink in phases to various institutional clients. Based on the company's past experience with shrink-wrapped applications that employed a typical data modeling visual interface, American Express Retirement Services was anticipating considerable training and support to meet the needs of its external audience during implementation. However, thanks to English Wizard's simple English-language query capabilities, both training and support requirements have been minimal.

The ExpressLink application has been well received both externally and internally. "The new application has been a delight to our customers," continues Procaccini. "I think a lot of companies feel that once they outsource their plan administration, they lose access to knowledge about what's going on with their plans, as well as control of that data. ExpressLink addresses this concern by allowing them to stay in the driver's seat without getting involved in the nitty-gritty of application development."

Down the Road

Future modifications to the ExpressLink application will be determined by feedback from the field. "Because we're in a relatively early phase with ExpressLink, a lot of the input we get in the first year or so will drive our product evolution," notes Procaccini. "What's more, because we exceeded our customers' expectations with ExpressLink, they haven't fully discovered everything they can do with it. In time, I expect we'll hear that they are interested in additional features. I can also imagine eventually delivering this capability down to the plan participant level, with individual account holders having controlled access to their own retirement information. When that time comes, we're confident that English Wizard will be part of our strategy. The ExpressLink application provides an excellent example of English Wizard's success in providing sophisticated query capabilities for non-technical end users that utilize simple, common sense language structures. No other product can touch English Wizard when it comes to ad hoc query capabilities."

About Linguistic Technology: Based in Littleton, Massachusetts, Linguistic Technology Corporation is a leading provider of end- user data access solutions. A technology innovator, Linguistic Technology pioneered the use of natural language user interfaces and Web-based end-user query capabilities. With its focused technology strategy, best-of-breed partnerships and superior customer service, Linguistic Technology is well positioned to help partners and customers compete and succeed in today's marketplace.

ExpressLink and SmartData are servicemarks of American Express Retirement Services. English Wizard is a trademark of Linguistic Technology Corporation.

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