Recently, Novarica facilitated a Special Interest Group session in Wellesley, MA, focused on the issues, challenges and opportunities facing carriers in the Group and Voluntary Benefits space. Sixteen carrier participants made the trip to join in a session which provided for a wide-ranging discussion that was particularly timely, inasmuch as many carriers are now in the final stages of framing their plans and budgets for 2017. Earlier last week, Novarica published our latest annual survey of IT Budgets and Plans, which can be accessed at http://novarica.com/insurer-it-budgets-and-projects-2017/; the material featured prominently in some of the discussions that we explored through the course of the day. The session was hosted by Sun Life and we very much appreciate them making both their team and facilities available for the event. Some of the key discussion areas included:
The world is going “digital” and group carriers need to accelerate their efforts to keep up. Across the entire insurance industry, irrespective of line of business, one of the key topic areas is the evolution of digital strategies. Agreeing on what exactly is included in such a “digital” definition remains somewhat elusive, with varying interpretations of the term reflected in Novarica research. Interestingly, however, no one seems to want to discuss “analog” strategies, which would seem to be the natural corollary to digital capabilities, validating the general importance. Carriers focused on the Group / Voluntary benefits space are certainly feeling the pressure.
From the session, it was absolutely clear that Group carriers are aware of the rapidly changing “customer”, which has serious implications for the creation of valid and engaging experiences. Customer has multiple possible definitions for Group insurance. Clearly, plan sponsors are a focal point, and providing solution sets and experience which retain key players in the value chain (e.g., benefits managers and HR departments are key), but similar needs exist for distribution partners and plan members. Leveraging from other lines of business, there was a good discussion regarding the need to think about different tailored experiences for different demographic cohorts as well as the need to consider how “customer” expectations are being influenced by other parts of their lives, including banking and retail engagements. Being out of step with this creates added pressure on carriers that may have historically tried to optimize on “one size fits all” solutions; these approaches, however, risk become “one size fits none” answers. For example, mobile capabilities become increasingly important across the value chain, but as a complement to other tools, rather than as a replacement for other engagement points. A number of carriers noted that they are also considering how Omni-channel capabilities might impact them in the future, which led to a key discussion in this space: effective Omni-channel solutions reflect the ability for a customer to decide when and how they want to move between channels for getting things done, rather than treating them as parallel and non-intersecting runways.
Data management is an increasingly important issue for carriers. One other thing that is very clear from all of this is that data and the ability to turn it into insights that are meaningful and actionable will become increasingly critical in this line of business. That creates challenges for both the ability to extract data from existing legacy environments as well as to attract and retain the talent needed to be able to work with emerging tools and platforms. Most carriers continue to work with legacy solutions that have underlying operational data contained in silos which can be difficult to use for interoperating with other things such as unstructured data. As we explored issues related to data, the notion of governance became increasingly a focal point for the discussion. One key question here was, in effect, who owns the data. Varying approaches were described by different carriers, suggesting that there is not a singular right answer. It was clear, however, that success is dependent on having someone own the data and that investment is made around effective governance which encompasses both defining the data and creating rules of the road for how it is used. The notion that discrepancies in the interpretation of data should somehow be resolved in the CEO’s office was clearly understood to be a “bad idea” which should be avoided at all possible costs. A range of approaches to creating a data governance structure were discussed, which led to a dialogue related to finding the talent that can actually work with new and emerging tools. Several challenges exist here, including the fact that insurance companies may not be seen by graduating students as attractive places to embark on careers. There are also concurrent challenges associated with where carriers are physically located, in terms of being in markets that can attract the right kind of talent. A number of approaches to addressing this were discussed, including internship programs, efforts to engage with local universities to influence curricula and the relocations of key functional areas to places that naturally attract top talent. Examples of companies positioning themselves to be able to tap into talent pools such as Amherst (MA) and Chapel Hill (NC) were also discussed, further reflecting on the need to be flexible and adaptable in a rapidly changing world.
Properly armed with data, part of the next challenge becomes turning that raw material into actionable insights. Some businesses, such as health insurance, have been increasingly aggressive about creating more frequent, and more bi-directional engagement, giving them the ability to potentially weave themselves more tightly into consumer lives (e.g., wearable devices). The unanswered question becomes how Group life and DI carriers can also do this. One avenue explored included leveraging technology to become better and more effective about managing claims for disability and absence management. This has also shown signs of success in the workers compensation space. It remains clear that this (data and analytics) is a space where there is no such thing as a notion of being “done”.
The lack of standards for the exchange of data is an increasingly troublesome problem with no “silver bullets” in sight. An ongoing area of concern for Group and Voluntary Benefit carriers is the lack of standards for exchanging data between enrollment platforms, distributors, carriers and others in the value chain. This particular line of business lags significantly behind the progress that has been made in the P&C world, for example. While carriers have long understood the issues and challenges resulting from the lack of standards there has been remarkably little progress made in this space for years. A number of industry bodies, including ACORD, LIMRA and the Open HR Standards group have tried, but the results to date have been characterized as “disappointing”. There are several efforts underway now but none appear to have the kind of immediate traction or sense of urgency which would lead to a change in circumstances in the near future. One of the challenges is that this business line has a different set of “players” in the value chain than you see in places like individual life insurance and annuities. As the Group and Voluntary Benefits arena has become more competitive, and faces increased margin pressure, new entrants in the value chain have moved to disintermediate carriers and distributors alike. Specifically, enrollment platforms which view the employer as their customer have moved to take on an increasingly important place in the delivery of these products. For them, the employer is the key client relationship and they really have very little interest in helping address issues specific to the insurance carriers which are providing products and services “behind-the-scenes”. As much as carriers would like to influence what the enrollment providers do, the reality up to this point has been that they have very little influence on decision-making at that level. The key to creating a more effective ecosystem for this line of business will be in figuring out the “what’s in it for me” issue for the enrollment platform vendors. Short of that, carriers and associations they belong to may have relatively little leverage in this space. Some carriers, recognizing the immediate challenge associated with this, have moved to create a series of technical tools to ease the ingestion of enrollment data. While this is neither easy nor inexpensive, it can be effective in terms of creating an internal mechanism for a carrier which mitigates the challenge of different formats of data coming in from the myriad of platform providers they work with.
A number of carriers mentioned that one of the major insurance trade association (ACORD) organizations believes they are making some progress in this space. The details on that remain confidential until later in the year but it seems clear that any solution which will be effective must address a broad set of issues for both insurance carriers and enrollment platform providers. Until that is done carriers will likely continue to play a relatively weak hand in this space, particularly for Group insurance benefits which employers see as being part of a suite of solutions being made available to plan participants.
Core systems remain a major concern but the pace of transformation remains modest. For all carriers at this meeting, the subject of core systems and their future direction remains an important “hot topic”. The nature of the business is that few have embarked on sweeping core system replacements today, although many expressed interest in seeing how the vendor community anticipates supporting this need in the future. A more common approach for most carriers now is to address some of their peripheral system needs, such as claims, compensation or underwriting, leaving the heart of their systems environment to be addressed another day. For many carriers, part of the issue remains that the low interest rate environment continues to be an impediment to new investments. There also remains a strong desire to see platforms successfully deployed at other carriers before some are willing to make a local plunge. Given the risks associated with these types of projects, and the lack of the kinds of success patterns which have colored the property and casualty space in recent years, some of this reluctance is not surprising. There are, however, emerging success stories with things like underwriting and claims which carriers in our view should be mindful of. One question came up regarding new entrants in this space. While there have been some newer technology vendors in recent years, the number is actually very small; this situation is unlikely to change significantly since the Group and Voluntary benefits segment is very highly concentrated with relatively few buying units. That generally keeps the number of new players down, particularly since part of the decision criteria carriers use for purchasing the systems is some form of track record that they can count on, creating a classic “Catch-22” situation. That isn’t to say, however that there are not good deployment examples for carriers to be aware of, particularly in support of the Voluntary benefits lines. The session gave us an opportunity to discuss a number of these. We also expect that 2017 will continue to show more progress by existing software vendors attracted to this space. Given the challenges, including significant technical debt, associated with current platforms at Group carriers, we do expect that the latter part of a decade will see a significant ramping up of investment.
Cloud based solutions are increasingly viable … with some caveats. For many carriers the use of cloud-based solutions across the technology stack is an option which looks increasingly attractive. In addition to allowing carriers to transition from Cap-Ex to Op-Ex spending, which can more closely align IT spending and business cycles, this can be a way for carriers to also reduce the long depreciation periods associated with traditional deployments, which can risk having solutions become obsolete before the depreciation schedules expire. This can lead IT organizations into unfortunate circumstances where impaired assets with significant residual value can need to be written off before new replacement projects can be implemented. As a result, carriers have increasingly turned to cloud options for peripheral systems such as e-mail, Human Resources platforms, CRM, and Finance capabilities. As many of the carriers at the SIG noted, these solutions can be both flexible and highly functional for critical workloads. Historically, cloud-capabilities had raised security related concerns for carriers. Today, many carriers have accepted that top-rated solution provides such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft (to name three) probably can provide better security than they deliver internally. As such, this allows carriers to consider these hosted solution options as viable alternatives for functions at the core of their operations, including claims and underwriting. We also discussed how cloud-based capabilities have become more commonly used for core functions in other parts of financial services, notably in banking and P&C insurance. One special challenge that may be faced by group carriers, however, is that there may be special requirements for data management and control that are established by the plan sponsors. Employers, potentially concerned about a range of issues associated with the personal and confidential information for employees, appear to have created challenges that group carriers are continuing to struggle with getting past. As a general construct, group carriers appear to have a very similar understanding of the issues as their individual insurance counterparts, but the concerns or restrictions raised by plan sponsors appears to be creating some added headwinds for cloud adoption on core capabilities. It also appears likely that this is a temporary, rather than a permanent, situation. For one thing, many carriers note that key infrastructure providers (including Microsoft and Oracle) are making it increasingly difficult for companies to acquire their technology for deployment outside of the cloud options. This is something that employers / plan sponsors will likely be facing themselves.
Agile is increasingly important but there are some clear challenges to achieving the desired outcomes. All carriers at the session noted that they are actively moving to use Agile as the preferred approach to software development. The degree of deployment varies significantly between carriers, however, with some having already moved to fundamentally change their work environments to support the collaboration needs associated with the evolving SDLC methodology. As much as carriers are looking forward to the potential benefits of Agile, there are some problems. For one thing, working with vendors that have themselves moved toward this development approach, may have very different definitions for Minimum Viable Product than the carriers themselves do. This makes it difficult to ingest work done by vendors and integrate it with development efforts being done by carriers on their own. This type of integration issue was mentioned by several carriers, highlighting the need to think expansively as project plans are developed and implemented. With the move to Agile, many carriers appear to be moving away from traditional office spaces and more toward a “hoteling” approach which has work spaces available on more of a ‘first come / first served” basis. This appears to have many advantages for carriers, but is something that is accepted at differing paces by employees from different demographic cohorts. Others noted that Agile is something that needs to be a joint IT and business undertaking, not IT alone. The change management efforts required to address both these issues is crucial to the ultimate success of these initiatives.
The level of engagement during the session was terrific although there were clearly more issue areas than we could discuss in a single day meeting. The group agreed that we should continue these sessions in the future and we’re pleased to be able to report that The Hartford Insurance Group will be our host for the sessions we plan to conduct in 2017. As always, if you’d like to discuss any of this in more detail, please let us know. Insurance technology is becoming ever more interesting … and critical to the success of the carriers focused on this line of business.