The green IT stars of 2010

InfoWorld's 2010 Green 15 Awards: Green-tech projects coupled with innovation and collaboration yield bountiful rewards

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Aflac pushes for paperless practices, yields productivity gains

Embracing electronic documents and print-management technology, the insurer sees faster policy processing and lower bills

Stacks of unclaimed printouts are a common site at organizations across the globe. At best, those pages get tossed into the nearest recycling bin, but even so, they represent a significant waste of natural resources and hard-earned company cash. As part of a companywide greening effort, insurance company Aflac instituted various technologies and policies to put the kibosh on print waste, resulting in a smaller environmental footprint, commendable cost reductions, and a surge in efficiency.

Starting last year, Aflac opted to invest only in energy-efficient network printers and has reduced printer count by 34 percent. Further, the IT department has set machines to default to two-sided printing, and the company embraced print management technology from Secureprint that requires users to confirm a print job at the printer before it will execute. Print jobs not retrieved within 24 hours are purged from the queue.

Aflac's paper-reduction efforts didn't end at the printer, either. The company's IT department has developed an online system called Smart App Next Generation (SNG) for enrolling and accessing policies electronically. "From a business perspective, this has helped Aflac reduce the need to handle the large amounts of paperwork usually associated with writing insurance policies. We are able to process the applications faster because there is no shuffling of paper between the agents and Aflac," said Pat Rayl, 2nd vice president of technology services at Aflac.

Agents have an added incentive to employ the environmentally friendlier approach to handling policies, Rayl noted: "Applications are approved faster through SNG. Therefore, the agents' commissions are paid faster."

The electronic delivery of policies, coupled with the electronic delivery of agents' statements, billing invoices, and corporate reports, has enabled Aflac to achieve an average of only 1.84 printed sheets of paper per active policy. There's also the ripple effect of fewer stacks of papers being sent to and fro via time consuming, eco-taxing snail mail.

Aflac's paper-reduction initiatives are a fraction of the company's overall sustainability initiatives. Other endeavors have included a data center makeover, such as server reduction through virtualization and improving cooling efficiency and air flow with techniques such as blanking panels, hot and cold aisles, and Koldlok around open floor areas. Additionally, the IT department has developed and promoted Aflac's Meeting Place, which features a suite of collaboration tools, including discussion groups, blogs, wikis, shared-document management, videoconferencing, and instant messaging. By promoting this approach to collaboration among offices spread out among its various offices and corporate campuses, the company saw a 43 percent increase in online meetings in 2009.

Rayl attributed the success of Aflac's multiple green endeavors to two key factors: sponsorship, promotion, and communication from upper management, as well as making the processes easy for employees to embrace. In terms of communication, Aflac's IT department maintains a Green IT page on Aflac Workplace that keeps company employees up to date on key metrics such as paper usage and server efficiency. "Probably the biggest lesson we have learned is that simply implementing green initiatives is not enough. Employees must be continually educated on the benefits of these programs and how they can contribute to making an environmental impact at work and at home," Rayl said.

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