APIs. Single Sign-Ons. There are no shortage of buzzwords in the world of benefits administration. The problem with buzzwords, of course, is that they’re usually misunderstood, or over-simplifying a concept. And in benefits tech, there really isn’t room for either mistake.

What are APIs and SSIs? Why do they matter to benefits administration? And where will they take us in the future of this growing industry? We spoke with Darin Wardell, CIO, and Steve Herman, CRO of WBD for the background and current buzz around these tech terms — and where they’re going to take us next.

First, we’ll take a look at just what the terms APIs and Single Sign-Ons, or SSOs, actually mean. Then, let’s do some myth-busting and talk about common misconceptions about APIs and SSOs. Finally, we’ll run through what makes these tech concepts so important to benefits administration, and discuss what the future might hold as ben admin technology continues to accelerate.

What are APIs?

The term API gets thrown around a lot, but what’s the actual definition? Wardell breaks it down in very simple terms. “It’s much more of a concept than it is a defining piece of technology,” he explains. “APIs don’t tell you anything about the intent.” The real question, when framing a conversation about an API, is asking what an API is supposed to do.

That’s because an API — or an Application Program Interface — is not any one service or function. Instead, the acronym “API” describes a concept: when applications from two different computing systems or companies interact.

What using the term API doesn’t tell you, Wardell continues, is anything about the intent of the API, or what is involved in the interaction between those two computing systems. “When we talk about APIs,” he says, “the API is the framework we’re using, but it doesn’t describe any functionality whatsoever.”

So an API is a concept. Great, but, what does that concept look like in practical terms? Here are a few examples of API technology at work:

  1. Google Maps: Google Maps is embedded into a company’s website. The company’s website uses API technology to send an address to Google Maps, and Google Maps responds with the map requested.
  2. Data Queries: A company’s internal website houses employee demographic data. A benefits admin platform uses API technology to request data matching certain age groups, and the internal website sends the results of that query back.
  3. Information Exchanges: An insurance carrier requires a statement of health. A benefits admin platform uses an API to send the statement to the carrier’s network, and the statement’s information allows the network’s program to ask any relevant questions in order to complete an underwriting request.

 What are SSOs?

SSO stands for Single Sign-On. And while many brokers think API and SSO refer to the same process, they’re not quite right. An SSO has a predefined intent: it allows a service provider, like a website with a login process, to utilize a trusted company’s authorization, saving consumers time when logging into the website.

“With an SSO,” Wardell explains, “you have two parties who say, ‘we know each other. I’ll believe you when you who someone is, and I won’t have to reauthenticate [that user].’”

One prime example of SSO technology at work: checking a box like “Use Gmail to sign in” on another company’s website. Once this is done, you rarely, if ever, have to use the second company’s login process. The company is relying on Gmail’s authorization to ensure you’re permitted to use this account.

While SSO tech is a fairly common sight on the consumer side of things, the process can be utilized internally as well. In a benefits admin setting, Wardell shares, an SSO can be used in conjunction with an API to query information, load the response into an SSO request, and use that unique information to authenticate a user’s statement of health or similar data request. These dual API/SSO authentications lend extra security to requests for sensitive data, such as an individual’s health information.

What Are Some Common Misconceptions About APIs?

The most common misconception about APIs is that it is a single type of code or query. An API is not a program pulled off a shelf; as explained above, the term API is a description of a type of technology at work.

When a technology provider says, “We can have an API do that,” what they are really saying is, “We can devise a way for these two computing systems to converse and give us a desired response.”

An API is not an off-the shelf product. “No one should have a checklist for how to start an API,” says Wardell, “because all of the questions depend on other answers.” APIs are purpose-built  and their parameters are based upon many factors: the who, what, and why of the business need.

“These have to start off with a lot of human intelligence,” Wardell continues, “and end with zero human intelligence.” At the end of the day, the API is two computers talking to each other, without human input.

When customers, brokers, and sales representatives don’t understand the terminology, the word API can be thrown around like it’s a cure-all line of code which grants their systems instant access to a world of data. Understanding that API technology is instead a purposefully designed and customized technology can help everyone on the benefits admin journey recognize what their systems can, and can’t, do.

Why Do APIs Matter in Ben Admin?

APIs and SSOs are important to a robust, purpose-designed benefits administration platform because of the very nature of the benefits beast. As Herman explains, “the business challenge is in the HR ecosystem. There are a lot of different players: payroll systems, ben admin systems, HRIS, carriers.”

With all of these data sources at work, and with their individual systems speaking in their own languages, the installation of APIs and SSOs work like a translation system behind the scenes, drawing every player together onto one common dashboard for consumers, and speeding the data-transfer process in the background.

What does that mean for consumers? The customer’s biggest decision, Herman says, comes with the struggle to define if their company is best-served by a one-size-fits all HRIS solution, or by a holistic application which allows the company to leverage API and SSO tech for integrations. And when it comes to a benefits administration solution, going for the simple approach can fail to address the myriad languages and data streams which are needed every day by the average HR department.

“In that whole ecosystem,” Herman shares, “ben admin is by far the most complicated. So larger customers, with more complex benefits offerings, need a specialized system.”

From a carrier perspective, enhancing connectivity with customer systems can create seamless, intuitive enrollment systems which boost user engagement and enrollment. This is particularly true with carriers seeking data for enrollment purposes.

As an example, Herman suggests we consider life insurance enrollments: “It’s traditionally a paper-driven process, mainly around evidence of insurability.” The form is filled out, it’s mailed to underwriting, it’s reviewed, a determination is made of enrollment eligibility, and a form is then returned to the employer to add to the benefits enrollment system.

All of that work and spent time could be eliminated with API tech. “With connectivity it can be done in the enrollment experience — [users are] prompted to go right into the enrollment questions.”

How will APIs Affect Benefits Admin in the Future?

API and SSO technology solutions will continue to smooth bumps on the benefits admin roadmap, with ongoing improvements to speed, data-sharing, and the elimination of relatively bulky and time-consuming processes.

One particular application will be the elimination of the typical process for confirming Evidence of Insurability (EOI). At present, any standard benefits admin system involves some heavy-duty file processing to make sure files sent to carriers are marked up in the appropriate structure for each individual carrier.

“The file management system is pretty antiquated,” Herman says. In the future, he suggests, eliminating the file process and utilizing an API between the carrier and the benefits admin platform could streamline employee data sharing, allowing information sharing to run constantly between the two systems.

APIs and SSOs Enhance Benefits Administration

There’s no doubt that benefits administration works better with API and SSO technology. The challenge for brokers and HR professionals is understanding that these terms, which can sound so simple in a sales pitch, are not items easily placed into a single box. While API and SSO tech can speed up many processes for carriers and employers alike, as well as eliminate potential security risks like paper files and traditional mailing, it’s important that every company work to find solutions that are right for their individual situation.

The conversation around ben admin platforms should continue to be about creating unique solutions that suit a company’s needs, not trying for a one-size-fits-all solution. Redirecting the sales focus, Herman suggests, from “one solution that can do everything” to a platform that is best for an organization and allows all platforms to talk to one another, is the best way to provide powerful, long-term solutions for clients.

Understanding how and why APIs and SSOs work, and explaining this concept in simple terms, is a strong advantage for any broker seeking to develop a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship with their clients. This knowledge does more than showcase a strong interest in the benefits industry and the client’s needs — it also helps a broker level-up their clients to the best possible fit.