In some organizations, the complex, painstaking and costly business of producing key benefit documents like summary plan descriptions is accepted merely as a legally necessary but thankless task. You won't find that attitude anywhere in the vicinity of Michael Calhoun, director of benefit plan governance for AT&T and winner of this year's EBN Benny Award in the Judges' Choice category.

Described as a "visionary," Calhoun is midway through a massive technology-based overhaul of AT&T's entire process of managing plan documents. When the 30-month project is wrapped up late next year, SPDs will be far more user-friendly for employees, thereby enhancing benefit communications and appreciation of the company's investment in benefits.

Calhoun is responsible for the creation, maintenance and compliance of benefit plan documents and SPDs, as well as other compliance functions. "Under his direction, AT&T has developed one of the most comprehensive benefit governance programs in the industry," says to Kim Buckley, compliance lead and head of the communications consulting practice for HighRoads. "When you think of the enormous number of documents they have to wrangle because of their growth over the years with mergers and acquisitions, the infrastructure needs are enormous."

AT&T is unique, she believes, in consolidating responsibility for benefits governance in a single position. Focusing that responsibility in one capable leader - Calhoun - has enabled AT&T to turn to one system of records to house both working drafts and final documents, along with supporting material - plan designs, SMMs, SPDs, SARs, open enrollment communications, collective bargaining agreements and other documents.

"We're moving out of an environment where our job is to maintain documents, to one where our job is to manage information," says Calhoun. "And that's where the real business value is, making that information more accessible, giving it greater utility, eliminating work that goes on in the current environment just to assemble information for decision-making purposes."

One way that is to be accomplished can be illustrated by how SPDs will be managed when the system is fully in place. All current SPDs will be fed through software that will highlight identical plan language. When all the language is ingested, the system automates the process of incorporating changes to individual plans as they occur - a far more efficient process than the standard "cut and paste" method, Buckley says.

Also, under the traditional approach, SPDs can be massive documents due to variations and exceptions to the plan that would not pertain to every employee reviewing the document, Calhoun says. "In the future environment," he says, "because we will be able to do so much more easily, we might produce ten versions instead of one, each version specific to a certain population group." The result: a document that's much shorter, and therefore less intimidating and more inviting to read.

Facing the prospect of ever-increasing demands on the compliance function, Calhoun concluded that "just dedicating more people and resources" to the task "just isn't going to work."

"We recognized that the long-run solution was to find a different way to do the work and to redesign the process based on different technology."

That insight is why Buckley considers Calhoun a visionary thinker. In nominating Calhoun, Buckley and her HighRoad colleagues boiled down his "process for achieving operational excellence in a complex, changing environment" for benefit plan governance into two components.

The first, they explain, involves assessing the future state. "Determine what information needs to be communicated, and when. Determine when you need to reissue communications with a specific cycle." The second requires determining the downstream impact. "When new legislation comes out, what needs to happen immediately? What happens after that?"

With that conceptual framework in place, the real work began. For starters, the technology to produce the result Calhoun envisioned didn't exist. That led him to line up some business partners to go through an 18-month discovery process to determine whether the solution he envisioned would actually work.

Calhoun discovered that the technology developed for the purpose showed great promise, so his next challenge was building the business case to invest in the solution - and ultimately making change happen.

Naturally, in a large organization and lacking dictatorial powers, Calhoun needed to employ collaborative and diplomatic skills to bring all the impacted constituencies on board. He also needed to assemble teams from different sectors to help make the project a success.

Calhoun's focus isn't limited to the pace of project implementation, according to Buckley. "When you talk to him," she says, "his vision is already into the future state. You can see his mind spinning to, 'How else can we use this information?'"

Richard Stolz, a former EBN editor and publisher, is a freelance writer based in Rockville, Md.

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