Innovation challenges and the Insurance Broker

John Petersen, CIO, Heffernan Insurance Brokers
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John Petersen, CIO, Heffernan Insurance Brokers

As the leaders of our company’s technology efforts, a short list of things we are charged with are making sure that IT is aligned with the business goals, helping the company to differentiate itself in the market place and,making big news lately, facilitating innovation efforts.  The subject or focus of that innovative idea can be over any area of the business and be anything from a big data initiative to mobile, security, client related or who knows what.   How do you keep your eyes open for that disruptive idea that could help propel your company through the next year or even further, when you have so many other areas to focus your efforts?  Especially if that thought, idea, or new technology doesn’t show its true potential at first glance.

I have experienced several barriers to innovation efforts, the first of which was the willingness to look deeply at new ideas.  Inboxes and voicemails are flooded daily with cold calls and advertisements for the latest and greatest app offering to save your company time, money, and or increase your efficiency.  Our headquarters location near the Silicon Valley creates unique opportunities, as well as challenges, since ideas are brought to us by employees who are friends or neighbors with people at local tech companies, all with the next great app.  Many times our employeesinevitably sit next to someone on a plane who talked about or read about the next best app and now they are bringing that idea to you to implement.  There can be so much of this internal and external marketing that it has become “white noise.”  I found myself tuning out most of it because of the amount of work that was already taking place in the department.  Besides, I know technology, and it is pretty easy to see if something is going to help the staff or work in our environment.  How many innovative ideas have been missed by tuning out the white noise?

Another barrier is that most of the software you see or the ideas that you receive are not innovative or disruptive to your industry.  Sure, they may help operational inefficiencies, be a best practice, or any number of things.  In reality, the majority are not going to transform the business or differentiate you from your competition at the level that you would call innovation.

We have also had what we felt were really great ideas that we know we need to implement, but when it comes down to the details and discussion of what it would look like and how it will actually work, the real challenge begins.  We know we need this app that is going to have this cool feature that keeps our clients engaged with us and make them tell their friends and peers about how great we are and how everyone has to do business with us because nobody else has it.  Fleshing out that idea into a tangible product seems nearly impossible.

Last year our company implemented an innovative committee that was made up of individuals from all over the company, making sure we had representation from as many areas as possible while keeping the committee to a reasonable size.  The first year was spent shaping how the committee would work, setting up a website to enable team collaboration and then offering a monetary reward for employees who submit an idea that gets turned into a part of the business.  We also have an external representative who helps us work through ideas with a point of view from outside our company and industry. 

We just finished our first round of requesting ideas from the company and rating those ideas based on how well they met our innovative idea criteria.   As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the ideas that come in are not innovative.  Most of them are good ideas for increasing efficiency, so we pass them over to our Chief Operations Officer (who is also on the committee) for further review.  We did actually receive a couple of ideas that we are pursuing and gathering business requirements so we can really look at the possible ROI, and how well it will transform or enable the business.

Going through this process has really helped us focus on looking at the ideas through a specific lens and by having a committee look at everything, it spreads the workload out to where it is not just one person or IT’s responsibility.  However, as great a channel as the Innovative Committee is, it is not the only avenue that these ideas will take to find their way to you or your company.

One innovative successreally started as something much different.  In our regular efforts to squeeze every bit of efficiency out of our networks to provide a fantastic end user experience, we were looking at how we could decrease the time it took for attachments to open on our East Coast offices when they pulled files from the data center.  In working through this problem and tracing the path as far back as we could, we found that the majority of our files come as attachments in emails and those attachments get stored on the network in our Agency Management System.  We thought that if we could reduce, or optimize the files before they hit our mail servers, that would help reduce the transmit time for those files across the network.

We started searching for software to accomplish that task but were unable to find anything.  We found many file optimization software packages, but none that could get the attachments before they arrived at our mail server.  One of the companies we talked to recognized that need, and offered us use of their SDK.  After several months, my IT Director was able to create exactly what we needed and the vendor who let us use the SDK wanted to partner with us to sell what we created.  Not only did the process we created reduce attachment size, but it reduced our storage footprint growth by over 30% in the first year alone.  That also reduced our backup times, offsite backup storage, transmission times of the files, IT labor costs, and since it all runs in the background, there was no training required by our employees.  It virtually eliminated any bounced back email messages due to large file attachment sizes since it works on both inbound and outbound email.

This process ended up effecting so much more than we originally set out to address and truly opened up many doors we were not expecting.  An Insurance Broker IT department generating revenue? A truly innovative win.  A short time will tell if the Innovative Committee ideas will pay off.  Now, the never ending challenge; keep that process rolling.  The challenges mentioned above are always present, but having a deliberate, focused and willing mind-set, partnered with a team that is working together, your chances of finding successful innovation are greatly improved.

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