John Hancock Launches Blockchain Program

Jon Leslie

Last week, Coindesk reported that John Hancock is starting to explore development using the blockchain.

While it’s becoming common in financial services overall (as Novarica VP Jeff Goldberg noted in a blog post a few months ago), this represents the first instance of an insurance company per se (excluding USAA, whose work in the area is likely focused more on banking applications) disclosing an exploratory program around blockchain.

As Jeff and I wrote last year in Bitcoin and Insurance: An Overview and Key Issues, adopting blockchain is not just an opportunity for some good press (and a helpful recruiting tool for tech-oriented millennials to boot) but also smart from a long-term strategic perspective. In our brief, which offers an overview of the area and a brief explanation of blockchain’s mechanics, we argued that insurance, as consisting of financial contracts between trusted parties, is a natural domain in which to apply a “trust machine” like blockchain. In areport on the same subject from earlier this year, Ernst & Young discussed the same subject in great detail, pointing to a number of likely use cases, including “micro-insurance”, “cyber liability”, “P2P”, and better distribution of highly personalized/regionalized products.

Naturally, however, the time-to-market for blockchain-based insurance is gated by regulatory issues, as well as by the perfectly reasonable fact that many of the products to which it is likely most suited still have yet to be invented.

John Hancock in its first phase does not appear to be planning to build anything related to insurance. Instead, a small group of their own developers, in partnership with a few startups, are prototyping an internal “employee rewards program”. This lean and iterative approach sounds like a smart way to build institutional knowledge around a potentially revolutionary, raw, and challenging technology. As a database, network, and a currency system all in one, blockchain really is a unicorn, (as many suggest, perhaps most analogous to the web itself in terms of its technical novelty). Therefore, any company that hopes to “fast follow” in this area will need to have a firm foundation of institutional understanding on which to stand.

As Matthew Josefowicz has pointed out before, technological disruption is not unlike that Hemmingway quote about how ones goes bankrupt: “first it happens gradually and then all-at-once”. While we’re still definitely in this gradual phase, it’s reasonable to expect only small dividends from these R&D programs. On the other hand, taking a relaxed “let’s see what happens” approach, of the sort many media companies in 90’s took to the web, may seem ill-advised when reflected upon after an “all-at-once” kind of transition.

We expect to see more carriers launch these sorts of exploratory programs in the coming months.

A Challenging Environment in the Industry

Frank Petersmark

I recently had the opportunity to participate as a judge for the ACORD Insurance Innovation Challenge held in Des Moines. The event brought together seventeen startups who each had five minutes to pitch their ideas and approaches, and another five minutes to field questions from the judges. Two winners were chosen who now move on to the finals competition in conjunction with ACORD’s annual meeting. There are several of these Challenge events being conducted in the U.S. and Europe, and at least part of the idea is to attract more innovative and entrepreneurial thinking to the insurance industry.

The View from Outside

The Challenge has the benefit of providing some perspective on how innovative and entrepreneurial types view the industry as a potential market. If this event was any indication, many innovators view the industry the same way fighter pilots viewed certain kinds of combat missions – as a target rich environment.

Nearly all of the participants were from outside of the insurance industry, and their startup ventures focused mostly on data aggregation for customer centricity, process improvements for policyholder and agent service improvements, and seamless straight through processing for underwriting and claims decisions. In short, many of the things that the industry doesn’t do particularly well currently. As I said, a target rich environment.

“Capital Rich and Service Poor”

Encouragingly, there were a few venture capital firms present, and a couple were even from insurance companies. Both the startups and the venture capital firms view the industry as capital rich and service poor, and that means opportunities for the kinds of approaches that will make a difference to the next generation of policyholders who many of these startups hope to turn into lifestyle customers.

Minimizing Distracted Driving

One of the startups focused on distracted driving by actively monitoring drivers and their behaviors, resulting in reports that indicate what adjustments might be made to improve safety and reduce premiums. The interesting part about their approach was that they had the ability to dynamically turn off smartphone apps that tend to cause distracted driving if given permission to do so.

Nudging Consumers Towards Healthier Behaviors

Another startup focused on the kinds of lifestyle changes that would result in customized life insurance products that included rebates or modifications for health related activities. Interestingly, their premise counts on the fact that the new generation of consumers is much more willing to share private information about their lifestyles in exchange for financial or other benefits, a fact that the industry has been slow to pick up on generally.

Shared Service Drones for UW and Claims

Still another had the bright idea of becoming a third party provider of a drone service that insurers would use for property assessments during the policy and claims processes. The startup would use vetted and licensed drone operators and charge a flat fee per fly by. That has a lot of potential.

Optimizing Existing Marketing and Processes

Finally, there were a few startups that sought to smooth cumbersome processes – one for reinsurance coverage by creating an online marketplace to connect needs with coverages, and another that proposed using advanced analytics to personalize the travel insurance market, thus leading to more sales.

More Change, More Responsibility for Corporate Leaders

In all, there were encouraging signs that the industry has begun to wake up to the fact that the ground is moving underneath it, and if in the end the industry doesn’t move quickly enough to keep its balance, there are others who will.

From our perspective, our recent research on the relationships between insurance CIOs and their boards of directors, and our view that the industry should appoint more board members with deep technology experience to their boards, is reflective of where the industry needs to go. There are even a few carriers that have begun to appoint board level technology committees as way to place the competitive and market implications of a well-executed technology strategy in their proper place – at the strategic top of the company. We’ll be presenting our research on this topic at the NAMIC Annual Convention on September 25-28, 2016 in Vancouver, BC, Canada. In the meantime, on to the next Challenge.

Novarica Council Gathers Insurer CIOs to Address The First Year of the Future

Matthew Josefowicz

Nearly 70 IT leaders from more than 50 insurers gathered last week at the 9th Annual Novarica Insurance Technology Research Council Meeting to participate in panels and workshop sessions with their peers, get insights from Novarica’s senior team, and attend keynote sessions from outside experts on operational transparency and cyber-security.

The First Year of the Future

We dubbed last year “The Year the Future Arrived” for insurance, when nascent trends like wearables, Internet of Things, consumer internet giants’ interest in the sector, and a growth of direct sales beyond personal lines became a reality. This year, the clock is no longer counting down, but counting forward.

Keynote: Nine Trends and Issues…

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My keynote focused on our Novarica Nine for 2016 and Beyond, looking how these and other trends are shaping the industry, as well as what kinds of technology strategies insurers are taking to address these trends, and how they are managing their IT organizations to deliver these capabilities.

…100 Technology-Enabled Capabilities

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We also reviewed our expanded “Benchmarking the New Normal” framework, which we will publish this summer, looking at deployment rates for 100 key technology-enabled capabilities across functional areas like product, marketing, distribution, customer engagement, billing, claims, and finance/operations and technology areas like data, digital, and core.

CIO Panel: Core, Agile, Evolving Customer and Employee Dynamics

Our CIO Panel, which included Kate Miller of Unum, Scott McClintock of OneBeacon, and Paul Brady of Arbellla, addressed strategic issues ranging from core systems replacement to embracing agile development to redesigning their organizations to make insurance IT an attractive career option for millennials.

Operational Transparency for External and Internal Customers

Our guest keynote, associate professor Ryan Buell of Harvard Business School, presented his research on operational transparency and its impact on customer service to a tremendously responsive and engaged group. We’d invited Dr. Buell to join us because his research is so applicable not just to the insurance customer experience, but to the relationship between IT and other business units. See this recent post for more on this session

Novarica Research on Core Transformation, Data, Digital

On the second day, the Novarica panel of Rob McIsaac, Martina Conlon, Mitch Wein, and Jeff Goldberg from our team discussed some of their recent research and customer projects in areas like core systems selection, transformation project assurance, data strategy, meeting agents’ digital needs, and a wide range of other trends and best practices.

Discussion Groups of CIO Members Focus on Their Key Issues

Special interest group discussions for group voluntary benefits, individual annuities, individual life, personal lines, specialty, commercial lines, and workers comp explored recent research relevant to each sector. In discussions co-led by a Novarica expert and a CIO chairperson, these groups addressed topics like enrollment standards, impact of the DOL fiduciary ruling, market dynamic changes, ISO rating, and core systems vendors.

Cyber-Security Threat Evolution and Preparation

Distinguished professor and Department of State cyber-security adviser Dr. John Savage gave a closing keynote on the cyber-security, emphasizing the importance of managing security beyond perimeter protection and staying engaged with industry groups to monitor the evolution of new threats globally.

Knowledge-Sharing and Networking

novarica-councilCouncil members valued the opportunity to network and learn from each other in a private, vendor-free environment, and many of the special interest groups have already made plans to meet again later this year. We’ll be publishing a report summarizing the discussions and panels next month, and the 10th Annual meeting will occur in late April, 2017.

For more information on joining the Council, senior insurer IT executives are invited to visit http://novarica.com/council and request membership. Membership is free and has no obligations.

Operational Transparency, Agile, and Perceived Value

Matthew Josefowicz

Our guest keynote speaker at the recent Novarica Insurance Technology Research Council Meeting was professor Ryan Buell of Harvard Business School, who presented some of his recent research on operational transparency and its impact on customer service.

Transparency Changes Perceptions

The main finding of Dr. Buell’s research is that service providers perform better when they see the impact that their work has on customers, and that customers are more appreciative and feel better served when they see the work that has gone into providing services to them.

Here’s a video of Dr. Buell presenting on this topic as it relates to government services, from his website:



I invited Dr. Buell to join us after encountering his research online, and realizing how important this topic was not just for insurance customers, but for the internal customers of insurance IT leaders.

Insurance is an opaque product

For customers, insurance is an invisible and mysterious product. Few customers know what goes into underwriting and issuing a policy or processing a claim. Even for distributors, a major source of frustration is not understanding when or how decisions are being made. Some insurers have found that simple process additions like progress bars, proactive process notifications, or simple explanations can have an impact on customer and agent satisfaction levels.

IT is also an opaque product

IT is an equally opaque product to its internal customers. Leaders and staff in other business units generally have a poor understanding of IT, why things that seem simple are complex, how long tasks actually take, and generally just what the heck those technology guys are doing all day. This lack of understanding and lack of transparency leads to frustration and turns other business executives towards trying to manage IT with the only tool they do understand: budgets. This rarely leads to value creation.

For IT, Agile is helping

With the mass adoption of Agile development by insurers, this is starting to change. One of the main benefits of Agile is enforcing regular communication and review of progress between technology staff and other business units.

As shown below, the majority of insurers report that this is improving end-user satisfaction with delivered products, relations between IT and other business units, and even IT job satisfaction.

Slide22

Through frequent interactions and reviews, other business units feel greater ownership in IT projects, and IT feels like it’s making a difference in achieving overall business goals.

Future collaboration

We believe that insurers can benefit from an operational transparency orientation in multiple areas, and we’re currently in discussion with Dr. Buell about future collaboration and activities with our team and Novarica Research Council members. Contact me if you’re interested in learning more.

Related Research

  • Novarica Nine Insurance Technology Trends and Issues for 2016
  • Agile at Insurers 2015
  • Digitalization and Disruption: Thoughts from the MI IASA Conference

    Frank Petersmark

    I recently attended the MI IASA Spring Conference where I presented recent research on the continued and disruptive digitization of the insurance industry. The research resonated with many of the carrier IT and financial people in attendance, who find themselves and their companies at various points along the digitization continuum. One of the central themes that emerged in the ensuing discussions was how many in the room viewed this transformational trend as both a risk and an opportunity. Which way it was viewed really depended on the perspective of the viewer, with the more security oriented in IT expressing concerns over security, and the more customer (agent and policyholder) focused on the potential for engagement and information sharing.

    That dividing line was more nuanced than it sounds, as on the whole most of the attendees of the session and of the conference were engaged in trying to figure out how to position their carriers and organizations for the digital onslaught to come. However, where the dividing line became a little less nuanced was in the positioning actions that many of the carriers in attendance were taking. During some of our discussions it became clear that the conference attendees represented a microcosm of what’s going on the industry overall, and that’s the creation of digital haves and have-nots. The interesting part about that was the fact that not a single conference attendee I engaged with indicated that their company was making a conscious decision to be a digital have-not; rather, it was in the ways their respective companies viewed the potential of digitization that was the tip-off.

    For those who were focusing on the security and data protection concerns, and the need to tightly control the kinds of devices and platforms, the move to digital looms more as another threat that has to be dealt with rather than an opportunity to leverage. In fairness, their concerns are far from unfounded, but focusing on the potential problems and issues with digitization is missing the forest for the trees. As with any new technological trend, there will be issues and attitudes that have to be dealt with.

    On the other hand, several of the attendees I spoke with were very excited about the possibilities of a digital insurance world, and the promise that brings for improving relationships, processes, and products. Many indicated that their companies were utilizing portals and mobile platforms for things like agent and policyholder self-service, and as a way to reach new market opportunities. The results seemed mixed thus far, but experimentation and adjustment are all part of the equation when adopting new capabilities. The same attendees were also interested in the ways a new generation of employees, agents, and policyholders might want to interact with and leverage digital capabilities and how they should be thinking about that inside carriers. It was also true that many of the attendees were just trying to figure it all out, and that’s fine so long as that figuring out process leads to actionable initiatives.

    The good news was that there seemed to be widespread recognition among the carrier attendees from the financial, business, and IT functions, that the digitization of the industry was going to proceed whether their companies were ready for it or not. That readiness, and an orientation toward the opportunities that digital presents, will become the difference markers between the insurance industry digital haves and have-nots.

    Related Research:

  • Hot Topics for 2016
  • Novarica Nine for 2016
  • Benchmarking the New Normal: 50 Advanced Capabilities for P&C Insurers
  • Preparing for Digital Transformation
  • Talking to the Board, Talking to Millennials (and How the Two are Related)

    Matthew Josefowicz

    As insurers increasingly become tech companies that sell insurance, ensuring that the highest levels of management understand that technology is a source of competitive advantage rather than a risk should be on every CIO’s list of priorities for 2016.

    Our annual Quick IT Benchmarks report provides Insurer CIOs with data on the state of IT spending and initiatives at their operational peers. These benchmarks are designed to provide both an opportunity for self-assessment and a tool to help CIOs communicate with senior management at their companies. In a recent report on Technology and Corporate Governance in Insurance (check out the webinar here), we found that few corporate boards have the experience to manage IT in a strategic way, yet that’s precisely what will be required over the next few years as boomers retire and millennials take their place in society.

    This generational change, and the change in mindset it will necessitate in insurers, is the real theme of our recent report on the Internet of Things. While the IoT is not exactly pervasive yet, the larger point is that it’s symptomatic of a change in the expectations consumers, agents, and employees have of technology. Proactive, usability driven, smart – how many insurer’s systems currently measure up to these expectations?

    Related Research

    The Future is in Better Products and Service: Thoughts from the Bay Area InsurTech Meetup

    Steven Kaye

    I recently attended a Bay Area InsurTech meetup, sponsored by AXA Lab, with the theme of “Millennials, mobile and the future of Insurance.”

    The session started with an overview of findings from an AXA-Alpha UX survey. Notably, Millennials’ preferred method of interaction with insurers is in-person, and they view insurance as important for safety but not engaging; expensive, but necessary.

    Next, speakers from three startups, moderated by Tuan Pham from Silicon Valley Bank, discussed both the survey findings and a broad range of issues ranging from how to design products to appeal to Millennials to establishing brands.

    Automatic (https://www.automatic.com) offers an adapter that plugs into car’s ODBII ports, plus an app that displays info on your car and your driving habits. They offer everything from vehicle diagnostics to real-time driving feedback to finding where you parked your car to exporting data for T&E and taxes.

    One Financial (really, their investment Bee: http://www.beecard.us/) reaches out to the unbanked, and has lower customer acquisition costs than banks because of use of kiosks. The company is building presence at farmers’ markets. Vinay Patel, One Financial’s CEO and co-founder, realizes banks can copy what he does, but by that time he’ll have built up a nice business.

    Sure (http://sureapp.com/) offers what they call episodic insurance, which right now means being able to buy flight insurance on-demand from your phone. Wayne Slavin, the CEO and co-founder, discussed the importance of transparency, bundling opportunities, and the potential for outsourcing some function such as claims handling.

    I was surprised at how conservative discussion ran, compared to invocations of disruption and touting of Uber and Zenefits at other locations. For example, there was a discussion on the importance of following regulations. Connected cars, UBI, and driverless vehicles were seen as transformative, but the real impact would not hit for twenty years or so.

    A takeaway was that there was plenty of room for innovation in products and in engaging and serving Millennials, without startups seeking to be insurers in their own right.

    Google learns selling insurance on commission is hard; industry rejoices prematurely

    Matthew Josefowicz

    According the the WSJ and Insurance Journal, Google will announce today that it is suspending Google Compare for all financial services including insurance.

    It turns out, selling insurance for commissions through comparison sites is much harder than it seems. This was obvious to anyone who read InsWeb’s 10Ks from 15 years ago. Comparing rates doesn’t necessarily lead to buying directly from the site that lets you compare rates. Google seems to have figured out that it can make a lot more money selling advertising to insurers than selling insurance on commission.

    It’s an interesting example of how innovation works in the Valley. They tried something, it didn’t work the way they wanted it to, they learned something, and they shut it down.

    Unfortunately, some industry observers are drawing the wrong lesson. An industry source quoted in Insurance Journal says “U.S. consumers are still enamored with their agents.” But it’s pretty clear that the massive growth of direct personal lines and the current investment in direct commercial lines shows this is at best an overstatement.

    Again, the lesson is not “the old ways are best.” The lesson is “new market dynamics mean new models.” Commissioned sales is less remunerative than selling ads. Google learned their lesson. They’re moving on.

    Blockchain’s Growing Reach

    Jeff Goldberg

    As we covered in our 2015 report on Bitcoin and insurance, Blockchain has far-reaching implications for the insurance and financial services industries. At a basic level, Blockchain enables the creation of trusted contracts in a publicly-verifiable setting. Since insurance policies are a form of trusted contract, many people have envisioned a future where those policies are moved into Blockchain’s decentralized and public exchange.

    A number of financial services companies have adopted the technology as a means of recording transactions cheaply and securely on Blockchain’s distributed ledger. Accenture recently announced the launch of its Blockchain practice within the financial services industry and its resulting partnership with Digital Asset Holdings. Under this new alliance, Accenture and Digital Asset Holdings will work together to provide consulting and services to institutions implementing Blockchain solutions.

    Expectations should be that any industry relying on trust-based contracts between individuals will see some disruption in the future. The Internet of Things is nearly ubiquitous, and automated self-reporting devices continue to grow in popularity. Blockchain leveraged as an open and distributed system for keeping digital records can simplify management of these large quantities of data and transactions. Most insurers will choose to wait, but all would do well to monitor the evolution of this space and prepare for a future where Blockchain technologies play a larger role.

    Related Reports:

    One start-up’s stumble does not signal an end of disruption

    Matthew Josefowicz

    The insurance industry enjoyed another collective moment of schadenfreude yesterday when Zenefits’ CEO resigned after the company was found to have bungled agent licensing. But here’s something that appeared in no headline:

    Zenefits bungles licensing; insurer customers go back to preferring inefficent processes and bad buyer experiences.

    Just because Zenefits stumbled doesn’t mean they will fall. And even if they do, it doesn’t mean someone else won’t pick up the ball and give customers what they need. Maybe a company from inside the industry. Maybe not. Maybe a combination of both.

    For example, on the same day that Zenefits announced their problems, P2P start-up Lemonade announced relationships with several top-tier reinsurers.

    For those of us old enough to remember the first dot-com boom and its impact on the insurance industry, there’s an interesting difference this time around. Back in the 90′s, the aspiring disrupters were ahead of the market. This time, they’re in sync with the market and ahead of the regulators. Like Uber and disrupters in other industries, they’ll struggle with regulations. But if they create enough customer value, eventually they’ll win those struggles.

    And as the DOL is proving, sometimes regulators can disrupt markets all by themselves in an attempt to be more customer-centric.

    Insurers need to keep these external market shifts top of mind when making IT plans and decisions. External pressure, customer expectations, and innovation and putting new pressure on insurers’ data, digital, and core processing capabilities. IT leaders have a critical role to play in positioning insurers for the future that’s already here.