It is often said that all forms of art have a way of beingprophetic. Take Isaac Asimov’s 1976 novella BicentennialMan for example, which deals with the complex relationshipbetween man and machine and the effect that technology has on thehuman population.

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In the 1999 film of the same title, the president of NorthAmRobotics, a company that makes robotic servants, says ofadvancements in robot technology, “There is a fear that robots willcontinue to make the human work force obsolete.” It is interestingto note that the original story was written some years beforeInternet reached the general population and still more years beforethe invention of working humanoid robots and yet still expressesthe fear of technology replacing actual humans.

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Even the film, which was made at the peak of a turningmillennium full of possibilities, predicted the impact ofever-advancing technology on the necessity of human employees. Nowin the year 2011, those industrial fears are more relevant thanever with technology changing not just the way we experience artsuch as music, books and films, but also the way everyday tasks andjobs are completed.

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The benefits selling industry is no exception with recentadvancements in online enrollment options. The choices are many foremployers when it comes to explaining benefits to their employeesand assisting them in the enrollment process. Until recently, thoseoptions consisted solely of talking to or bringing in brokers andenrollment firms to talk with workers en masse, allowing aone-on-one interaction and enrollment in benefits.

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Now, however, more and more employers are moving toward onlineenrollment, in which their employees review and choose insuranceoptions on the Internet without assistance. The options themselvesremain the same, listed from most basic coverage to most extensive,while cutting out the need to bring in a broker or other insurancerepresentative to speak to all of the employees at once.

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Naturally, such new technologies are still in their early stagesin terms of how far they will be utilized in the benefits sellingindustry, though there is no doubt in the minds of some that itwill eventually overtake the greater need for brokers. JeremyTuckfelt, a broker in Pittsburgh, says that he has not yet seen apersonal effect to his business but is sure that it is coming.

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“It’s a double-edged sword, but things are moving that way,” hesays of the online enrollment technology. Smart brokers, he says,will let their clients know that they are here and can provide aone-on-one experience that can better explain complex issues thanthe simplistic and common ones that will be answered online, andthat they should place themselves at the forefront of thetechnological movement rather than opposing it.

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“The technology has been there for a long time, but now morepeople are embracing it as an option,” adds Ted Bosse, owner ofVoluntary Benefits Systems. Though online enrollment and theimplications that it holds for brokers and enrollment firms can befrightening to those parties, many within the industry believe thatthere is no reason why brokers should not still be useful to theirclients; it is simply the nature of the broker that willchange.

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Rather than explaining the basics of benefits and assistingclients with their enrollment, the broker will be on-hand to answerthe more difficult questions and provide the personal experiencethat many still prefer. “Most employers still see that face-to-faceis best. So brokers won’t lose any business, just expand theiroptions for reaching customers,” Bosse says.

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Additionally, many people are still wary of providing personalinformation online due to the equally important fear of cybercrime, so there will always be a faction of people who will notchoose online enrollment. The greatest issue comes in attempting tomaneuver the younger generations who are so used to doingeverything (including communicating) online.

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Tuckfelt believes that this complication can be overcome thesame way as maintaining older clients: by adding the personal touchthat only a broker can provide. Virtual assistants, he says, willbecome commonplace in the industry with preprogrammed answers totypical client questions and an actual broker standing by to answerthe more personal questions.

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While it is certainly a caustic subject to discuss theimplications of machine replacing man, Paul Kraemer with Humanacalls the relationship between online enrollment, brokers andemployers a “three-legged stool,” with all parts working togetherrather than at odds. His opinion stems from Humana’s forays intothis technology and their shared desire with Tuckfelt to be at theforefront of advances in the industry.

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He argues that there is no reason to place brokers at odds withthe Internet because they will eventually become two intertwinedparts of the same system. The clients will enroll online, Kraemersays, and receive expertise from their personal broker.

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A broker can have experience that an online program cannot andwill provide industrial knowledge that a computer might not be ableto foresee. With recent health care legislation and otherindustrial changes, there are several fears for brokers at thisstage of the benefits selling business, including technology thatmakes certain aspects of the brokers’ job obsolete.

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However, the general consensus among insurance insiders is thatthere truly is nothing to fear in online enrollment, that therewill always be a necessity for expertise from a one-on-one sourcewho can answer client-specific questions.

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