“All that glitters is not gold”: Four concepts, four potential insurtech responses

“All that glitters is not gold”:  Four concepts, four potential insurtech responses

As a few of us head to InsureTech Connect in Vegas this week to explore what the world has to offer in insurtech, I feel the need to keep my feet firmly on the ground and not to get too caught up in all of the glitz and glamour of both the location and the trendy start-up scene with its sea of beards.

“Bah, humbug!”, I hear you taunt in response.

Although I love the insurtech scene and welcome the fresh ideas, enthusiasm and willingness to be bold it brings (….and it’s way overdue and our industry needs a really good shake-up), I am mindful that history warns us that we should maintain an air of caution at this stage in any tech market’s development.  As the saying goes, “all that glitters is not gold” and there will undoubtedly be winners and losers (perhaps making Vegas all the more appropriate for the location).

Also, until wider market commentary around insurtech switches from the investment going in towards the value coming out of the start-ups (with real numbers on stealing market share, run-away customer demand, and incredible returns), we simply won’t know which way the market will move…if at all.

So, where will I be looking for the signs of a fresh gold seam and what might be an appropriate response for an insurer’s ‘insurtech strategy’?  From my perspective, there are four areas to focus upon:

  • Distribution. Undoubtedly, this is the area under the greatest threat of change through mobile, embedded micro-transactions and a change in demographics.  If you’re a traditional agent or direct writer, watch-out. If you’re an insurer on the other hand, your biggest challenge is likely to be the “speed of pivot” between current traditional and new channels that emerge. As a primary insurer, market scanning, operational agility and partnerships are likely to be critical elements of your insurtech strategy.
     
  • Automation, Analytics and AI. For decades, the industry has been running on robust (at least ‘robust’ for some of the time) transactional systems. For the bold, we’re now at a point where a substantial chunk of the operating model could arguably be replaced by not much more than an algorithm surrounded by a much smaller team of people to handle the customer touch-points. “Cloud native”, analytically driven micro-service architectures are the direction of travel. In markets exposed to aggregators, we have already seen some evidence of these characteristics being adopted by new entrants to the market.  As an incumbent, the challenge remains an age-old one of internal operational transformation and overcoming cultural inertia. Here, an insurtech strategy may be one of partnership in order to catalyse a change.
     
  • New propositions.  New risks, new data sources and, with them, new services.  Whether cyber-risk, the sharing economy or IoT enabled services, there is a lot of ground to cover here.  Out of these, new risks and use of new data sources appear to show the greatest promise in the near-term, and within the normal remit of an everyday insurer’s strategy. The IoT requires a different response. Although very very hot, it is a slower burn than other proposition related areas, primarily due to differing rates of sensor adoption, sensor installation economics, the absence of standards, the “what’s in it for me?” end-user proposition and the number of parties to engage, each with different agenda and requiring co-ordination. That said, it’s inevitable that it will become ever more pervasive across the industry. The bigger question, however, is what will the insurance industry’s role be in shaping it? Any insurer interested in the IoT needs to have effective partnership strategy with adjacent industries at its core.
     
  • New risk-bearing models. The word ‘disruption’ is overused in our industry, often without a solid understanding of what it truly means (for example, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it used to describe a neat technology ‘widget’ that performs just one step in an end-to-end process).


Simply speaking, in order for an industry to be disrupted, one of two things needs to happen. Either new technology needs to open-up a significant jump in productivity (rendering the old ways of doing things as obsolete) or there emerges an effective substitution for the need being satisfied (with the consumer switching as a consequence).  Anything else could be argued as just normal competition and shpuld be expected.

As highlighted in my first point above, it’s evident that distribution is facing an increasingly turbulent time.  It is also clear that some technologies may enable a leap in productivity once implemented in the extreme (and not just for a single process step). However, for me, the court is still out for the substitution of the main risk-carrying entity itself.

However, one area that threatens this position is P2P (both at the front-end with insureds and the back-end with methods of alternative risk transfer). Even though it appeals to the more geeky and technical side of me, the barriers to adoption at scale just feel a little too high currently – whether market education related or regulatory (as, if executed poorly, a misselling scandal may result).

Furthermore, market efficiency is probably still better served through the current market structure than P2P owing to the ‘law of large numbers’, albeit implemented on better technology and with greater transparency. After all, there is a reason why mutual insurers have been merging or converting to public companies around the world.

That said, I’m willing to be proven wrong and will be looking eagerly for firms / evidence to demonstrate otherwise. In this area, although the brave will venture out regardless, an appropriate insurtech strategy for the more cautious feels like a classic ‘watch, learn, and be ready to pounce’ with a ‘Fast Second’ strategy.

For insurers reflecting on their engagement strategy for insurtech, the common thread across all but one of the areas above is the need for effective partnerships between insurers and start-ups. As Mike Fitzgerald observes in Insurer Start-up Partnerships: How Maximize the Value of Insurtech Investments:

“Both sides face challenges. Industry incumbents face the burden of their legacy systems, their aversion to failure, and a habit of extended decision cycles. Newcomers lack the capital to underwrite risk, do not understand the regulatory environment, and cannot scale easily." 

There is value (and hopefully gold) to be gained from both sides in engagement.

Finally, while interest in insurtech is high, any insurer ought to be maintaining a watch on activity, providing that a strong bias towards value being delivered is taken (as opposed to money going in).

So, in summary, that’s what I’ll be focused on over the next few days – the hunt for value around these four themes.

About Jamie Macgregor

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