Back to the Future

A long time ago, before joining Celent, I was part of the insurance industry from the insurer side and my work was to look for ways to improve the company’s processes and innovate. I really liked the job because you had to come up with ideas and accept that you had restrictions, and sometimes you had to face the sad truth that the technology supporting your ideas wasn't available.

Now at Celent, I’ve witnessed a whole new world of possibilities because, as part of Celent, we are exposed to many, many successful cases implementing technology in insurance through research and events, especially in events like our Innovation & Insight day (I&I day). This year our I&I day takes place in Boston, Massachusetts on April 4, and Celent will award the best Information Technology (IT) initiatives in insurance.

That day, Celent will be presenting winners in 5 categories.

  • Digital and Omnichannel
  • Legacy and Ecosystem Transformation
  • Innovation and Emerging Technologies
  • Operational Excellence
  • Data Analytics

The Model Insurer Award is recognition of an insurer’s effective use of technology in a certain area or theme, not necessarily a statement that the insurer is absolutely best in class (although some may be). Model Insurer success highlights the insurer’s ability to improve performance and meet market demands when tackling issues that face all insurers today.

For instance, do the below examples sound familiar to you?

  • Under new management, the business had to transform itself rapidly and replace 20-year old technology. This insurer had a major license renewal date two years out and would have been locked in by the vendor to a prohibitively expensive contract.
  • An insurance company needed to create a digital process to meet customer expectations of doing business, automate underwriting, reduce cycle time and minimize human touch.
  • Another insurer utilized digital connectivity and ratings engine cloud-based platform to achieve a faster process and empower various actors across the organization.

I’m sure the examples above are the types of projects you’d like to implement at your company, but these are just a sample of the case studies we received. This year we received around 60 case studies applying for our Model Insurer Award. Of those, fifteen will be awarded Model Insurer and one will be the Model Insurer of the Year.

Personally, this year has been different. This year, I was amazed about the quality of cases we received and methodology that insurers are using to implement their projects, which made very difficult to deliberate. I’m not saying this is bad thing, on the contrary; it is a sign that the industry is on the move and it is using the best technology available.

I wish I had a time machine like in “Back to the Future” to go back to the days I worked for insurance companies, and tell my younger self: “you cannot miss this event; it will help you with your project.”

So, this is my advice. If you are part of the insurance industry and you are working in IT projects, this is the type of events you may want to attend to benchmark and learn about initiatives around the world that would help you define yours.

Lost in Innovation?

So, how do you avoid getting lost in innovation? The simple (and maybe glib) answer might be to buy a map, a compass and start to plan your route. However, what do you do when there is no map, no obvious path to take and no-one to follow?

The last 24 months have seen an incredible amount of activity across the sector in experimenting with novel proposition concepts fuelled by emerging technologies in the internet of things, distributed ledgers and bot-driven artificial intelligence. Although each new concept shows promise, we are yet to experience a clear and obvious pattern for winning new clients or delivering a superior shareholder return using them. Many of the most exciting novel ideas (and many are genuinely exciting) are yet to see any real business volume behind them (see my earlier blog for additional context of what insurtech has to offer in defining the ‘dominant design’ for new tech-enabled propositions).

So, as an insurer faced with having to balance how much it should invest in these new concepts versus furthering the existing business in what is probably a highly successful and scalable model, two of the big questions we often hear from clients are: “Which of these nascent concepts are most likely to deliver real business value the fastest?” and “How much effort should I be devoting to exploring them today?” These are the questions that we looked to address at our latest event in London that we called ‘Lost in Innovation’, attended by just over 70 inquiring insurance decision makers.

Faced with uncertainty, we followed an agenda that focused on the things that an insurer can control, such as the innovation-led partnerships they enter, the skills they develop internally, the criteria used for measuring value, and the potential challenges ahead that they need to plan for.

Celent analyst Craig Beattie presenting on emerged software development approaches

Alongside presenting some of our latest research on the topic, we were joined on-stage by:

  • Matt Poll from NEOS (the UK’s first connected home proposition in partnership with Hiscox) shared his experience on the criteria for a successful partnership.
     
  • Jennyfer Yeung-Williams from Munich Re and Polly James from Berwin, Leighton, Paisner Law shared their experience and views on some of the challenges in the way of further adoption, including the attitude of the regulator and potential legal challenges presented by using personal data in propositions.
     
  • Dan Feihn, Group CTO from Markerstudy, presented his view of the future and how they are creating just enough space internally to experiment with some radical concepts – demonstrating that you don’t always need big budget project to try out some novel applications of new technologies.

So, what was the conclusion from the day? How do you avoid getting lost in innovation? Simply speaking, when concepts are so new that the direction of travel is unclear, a more explorative approach is required – testing each new path, collecting data and then regrouping to create the tools needed to unveil new paths further ahead until the goal is reached. Scaling concepts too early in their development (and before they are ready) may be akin to buying a 4×4 to plough through the scrub ‘on a hunch’ only to find quicksand on the other side.

Some tips shared to help feel out the way:

  • Partnerships will remain a strong feature of most insurer’s innovation activity over the next 12-24 months. Most struggle to create the space to try out new concepts. Also, realistically, many neither have the skills or the time to experiment (given that their existing capabilities are optimised for the existing business). Consequently, partnerships create a way to experiment without “upsetting the applecart”.
     
  • Hiring staff from outside of the industry can be a great way to change the culture internally and bring-in fresh new ideas…however, unless there is an environment in place to keep them enthused, there remains a risk of them turning ‘blue’ and adopting the existing culture instead of helping to change it.
     
  • There are several ways to measure value created by an initiative. The traditional approach is a classic ‘Return on Investment’ (RoI). However, RoI can be hard to calculate when uncertainty is high. To encourage experimentation, other approaches may be better suited, such as rapid low-cost releases to test concepts and gather data to feel the way. Framing these in terms of an ‘affordable loss’ may be another way to approach it – i.e. “What’s the maximum amount that I’m willing to spend to test this out?” – accepting that there may not be an RoI for the initial step. Although no responsible insurer should be ‘betting the house’ on wacky new concepts, reframing the question and containing exposure can sometimes be all that’s required to create the licence to explore.
     
  • There’s still an imbalance between the promise of technology and the reality of just how far end-customers and insurers are willing to go in pursuit of value. The geeks (or ‘path finders’) have rushed in first – but will the majority follows? Regardless, to avoid getting lost in the ‘shiny new stuff’, a focus on customer value, fairness and transparency around how data is being used need to be at the heart of each proposition – plus, recognising that the regulator will not be far behind.
     

In summary, the journey ahead needs to be less about the ‘what’ (with all of its bells, whistles and shiny parts) and more about the ‘how’ (deep in the culture of the firm and its willingness to experiment – even in small ways) – at least while the map to future value is being still being drawn.

Celent continues to research all of these topics, including assessing the different technologies and techniques that insurers can use. Feel free to get in touch to discuss how Celent could assist your organisation further.

Celent clients will be able to access the presentations from the event via their Celent Account Manager.

Long Live Legacy and Ecosystem Transformation

When I started working at Celent back in November 2007, one of the research topic we were covering extensively was the legacy system modernization or replacement topic. Nowadays, legacy modernization remains a topic that has still a high importance in insurance CIOs’ agenda across the globe. Indeed based on our 2017 insurance CIO survey and out of 150 responses received across the globe, 57% of insurers are currently working on legacy modernization system projects. Another 10% are in the planning process and 11% will begin new legacy transformation projects next year.

It is therefore important for us to help our insurance customers understand what embarking in a core system replacement or modernization project means. While the benefits of modernizing core legacy systems are clear and compelling (gaining a competitive advantage — or achieving competitive parity, reducing operational and IT costs, making better underwriting and claims decisions, seizing analytic advantages when information and processes become completely digital), there are a lot of factors at play from the definition of the new system requirements, the approach to be chosen between the development of a new system and the purchase of a package or a best-of-breed component, to the selection of the optimal partners. Another crucial part of a legacy system replacement is the implementation of the new system as it can represent a major challenge notably in terms of project management, customization effort and migration. Implementations are particularly challenging when they involve multiple vendors and integrations.

To help our insurance customers figure out all the factors at play, every year we describe some cases in the frame of our Model Insurer program. This year we will be presenting the three cases we have received among more than 20 submissions in the frame of our Innovation & Insight Day event, which will take place in Boston on the 4th of April 2017. In addition to presenting the legacy modernization category award winners, we will also explain why they have decided to replace their legacy systems and what opportunities have been identified. We will also describe the implementation effort and draw out lessons learned. For those of you who will not be able to make it in person, we will publish a report profiling the three winners but I hope to meet you in big number at our event in Boston.

The ABCD of Emerging Technology

Alphabet Blocks A to D

Celent has mapped over 45 emerging technologies in P&C and a similar number in Life & Health. That's way too much for an insurer to handle and the pace of technological change outpaces the industry's capacity to absorb it. You could say though that there is a set of 4 emerging technologies with the most potential to profoundly affect insurance; the ABCD of emerging technology:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Blockchain
  • Cloud
  • Data (big and small)

The four altogether become a strong enabler for Digital. Digital interactions, digital products, digital claims, everything digital. Digital becoming important to meet the expectations of customers that want insurance to be simple, right now, as I want it, when I want it, and relevant to me. On the other hand, many consumers are still not being attracted by insurance; creating a protection gap. Digital comes as a possible response to close this gap, and in the process has the ability to profoundly change insurance as we know it. Actually, we may not call it insurance anymore. It may just be something that comes as a warranty of the product or service. Have I gone mad?

Imagine cars with assisted driving. There is an accident involving the autopilot function and the manufacturer claims no responsibility. Who is going to buy this car after that incident? No surprise then to see some car manufacturers, vested in automated driving, indicate that they will assume liability. Of course they will, and in the process what they are doing is to offer their customers a guarantee that the product will perform as indicated in the user manual. By being able to monitor the car status they are also able to prevent accidents or breakdown. So in the future will you get car insurance or a manufacturer warranty?

You can imagine any other product that can be monitored, for example as part of the IoT. All these products will generate data, and that data will enable their manufacturers to provide a service; in many cases that service will be a preventive one. See the trend here?

Today many digital initiatives in insurance still rely on the use of a call center. That's not digital because it implies human to human interaction. Each interaction needs of a human in the call center, so each interaction adds cost as there is no way you can make the human person be digital. The use of chatbots or robo-advisors enabled by artificial intelligence and natural language capabilities allow digital interactions, where each interaction can be taken simultaneously by a robot with no, or marginal, cost to do it. By robot don't think about a physical robot but software instead. Just as the one used by Lemonade to settle claims fast.

Artificial intelligence with machine learning capabilities also allows us to mess with a huge amount of data; discovering new patterns. The more information ingested to these machines the better answers you get. The more is used, the more it learns, the smarter it gets. Even most importantly, this technology today is very good at taking repetitive and predictable processes and doing it faster, better and cheaper than humans. You are smart, you don't need me to explain how this is relevant to insurance, do you?

Technology as the one described here is available on demand and in the cloud. Need more computing power? being in the cloud can solve that problem very easily. Pay as you go? cloud deployments make this technology available at a per use price. Basically cloud makes technology accessible to anyone.

Blockchain is the glue that can hold it all together. Digital and physical assets (that can be digitized) can be stored in the blockchain. The IoT could be linked to blockchain. Then, any rules applicable to digital transactions can rely on smart contracts. Finally by providing trust and provenance through a decentralized body blockchain becomes the basis to catapult digital in any scale, even when peers don't know each other.

Are you mastering the ABCD of emerging technology? Not yet? Don't be left behind; insurers around the world have already started. Want to find more about how insurers can take advantage of emerging technology and innovation? Contact me or any person at Celent. We will be happy to dive into this with you.

2016 – A year of InsurTech as well as Insurance Technology

We’re fast approaching the end of what has been a very eventful 2016, one that has seen (amongst other things) significant new investment in the insurance industry and a focus on InsurTech. This interest was reflected in those reading our blog with a clear trend towards innovation and sources of new technology for insurers.
  1. Will your next insurance administration system be on the Blockchain?
  2. Guidewire Acquisition of FirstBest – A Wakeup Call for Core Suite Vendors?
  3. The Evolving Role of Architects
  4. Slice: Insurance disruption in action
  5. Insurance companies are embracing technology — for investment
  6. A golden day for insurance: Celent 2016 Model Insurer winners
  7. In search of a new ‘dominant design’ for the industry. What does insurtech have to offer?
  8. Blockchain in insurance – who needs it, anyway?
  9. Is State Farm Pre-positioning Itself for the End of Auto Insurance (and Maybe the End of Homeowners Insurance Too)?
  10. A positive note for Brazil: A few insurance market developments to follow with interest
Mixed in here are a few topics on the basics of running an insurance company but overall the top 10 most popular blogs focused on InsurTech and innovation topics. InsurTech has certainly been a source of much of the hype. Examining some of the most popular reports this year suggest a more balanced focus from our clients though, with an interest in both established methods and technologies, applying new enterprise technologies as well as InsurTech and Block Chain topics.
  1. EMEA Policy Administration Solutions
  2. Changing the Landscape of Customer Experience with Advanced Analytics: Applications in Banking, Wealth Management, and Insurance
  3. Innovation Outlook 2016: Practitioners’ Predictions
  4. Model Insurer 2016: Case Studies of Effective Technology Use in Insurance
  5. IT Spending in Insurance: A Global Perspective, 2016
  6. North America Policy Administration Solutions
  7. Blockchain in Insurance: Use Cases
  8. Choosing Blockchain Use Cases in Insurance: Guiding the Hammer Toward the Real Nails
  9. Robotic Process Automation in Insurance
  10. Insurtech Has Arrived: A Primer
This mix of focus on core insurance topics with an eye to the future and InsurTech aligns well with what we’re hearing from insurers. So far the InsurTech movement has largely been symbiotic with the insurance industry rather than disrupting the incumbents. We are seeing a focus on partnerships and new firms augmenting the old ones – but the insurers need to be ready to bring in this new technology. 2017 will continue to see insurers investing to reduce costs, to increase agility, reduce these inhibitors and address problematic legacy issues. 2017 looks like it’s shaping up to be a year of opportunities for insurers who choose to take them. In the meantime, perhaps these top 10 breakdowns from most of 2016 will offer some useful holiday reading to help catch you up.

Thanksgiving stuffing and technological change

I like to cook, a lot. I spend a bit of time each week looking through magazines and my big binder of recipes to plan my menu of dinners for the week. It helps that my family is willing to try new and different things. They also like to offer suggestions for changes or to flat out request that certain recipes never make into the binder for future dinners. One recipe that comes out every year at this time is my grandmother’s turkey stuffing. Bam, as we called my dad’s mom, was of Canadian heritage and known for her traditional French Canadian tourtiere (meat pie). In a sense, her stuffing is a deconstructed meat pie, and my family loves it.

It’s also now a staple of Thanksgiving dinner with my husband’s family since I have been bringing it for the last 12 years. But it wasn’t always a welcome addition to the table. They already had a stuffing so why introduce another? And who ever heard of adding ground beef, pork sausage and potatoes to stuffing? But through a bit of cajoling, my tenacity in continuing to bring it, and introducing how good it is the next morning with a fried egg, I slowly won them over. It’s like that with any change isn’t it? You need to keep plodding forward and continually communicate the benefits even when others can’t see it or are willing to even try it.

There’s a parallel here to introducing technological change, or for that matter any change. Colleen Risk and I have been writing all year on front end technology for life insurers. We continually discussed how technology can help achieve STP and lower the cost of obtaining new business. Our research arc reviewed illustration, eApplication, and new business and underwriting systems. We wrote reports that analyzed how far life insurers have come in automating the new business and underwriting processes and found that there is ample room for further technology in many companies; automation is taking hold, albeit slowly.

A companion benchmarking report showed that since 2007 costs per application and costs per issued policies have dropped. The data shows that technology has been integral to the cost reductions even though making the changes affects how agents and underwriters do their work, for the better. Our last report in this theme will further analyze the benefits of automating the new business and underwriting process by comparing life insurers that have implemented technology into the process with those that have not. It is our hope that our research helps make the case for introducing more technology into the NBUW process and ease the change because the benefits are worth it.

Our 2017 research calendar includes a new research arc that begins with a paper published today, Separating Yourself from the Competition: North America Life Insurance Customer Service Strategy. Within the life insurance market, very few digital revolutions have happened in customer service. Implementing a digital strategy within the operating environment of a life insurer represents a complex set of challenges: organizational silos, multiple distribution channels, and legacy technology considerations make the work especially difficult. Life insurers recognize that customer service is critical to the success of their business. The criticality of customer service is underlined by the insurers’ recognition that the technology provided today is not sufficient, as well as the acknowledgement that significant spending is required to close the gap between what is available today and what should be provided. Yet, the challenge of digitally revolutionizing customer services presents opportunities. New tools exist that can increase the quality of customer interactions and deepen customer relationships. It is our hope that through a series of reports on customer service strategy, customer service operations, websites and portals, as well as mobile apps we can introduce the benefits of digitizing the back end processes related to customer service.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take 12 years to convince your organizations that new technology is beneficial. Celent wishes you all a Happy Thanksgiving. If you want a copy of my grandmother’s recipe, email me and I will send it to you!

Have Electronic Applications Come of Age?

My first experience with an electronic application was in 2002.  I was working with a major credit card company who included a flyer along with the billing statement that provided information about how to apply on-line for their term life insurance product. We didn't know how many applications to expect; but based on the wide distribution, we planned on a high number.  Many months of effort went into developing the eApplication on the website and creating an interface for the collected data into the new business and underwriting system. This was cutting edge technology at the time. The electronic application collected the Part 1 – demographic information – of the application. The Part 2 – medical information – was collected by a third party. A whopping 523 applications were received from the first mailing. The campaign continued on an intermittent basis for a year with a few over 2,000 applications received. At the end of the year, we threw in the towel and quietly closed down the campaign.  

Why did the campaign fail? There was nothing wrong with the process and the technology, while primitive compared to today, worked well.  The problem was that the idea was ahead of its time.  People were not ready to buy insurance on the internet. In fact, most of the applications received were declined or heavily rated.  The people who applied were driven to do so by a less than stellar health history and had few other options available to them.   

Flash forward to today; digitization of life insurance new business is a hot topic. Consumers are buying everything from mutual funds to groceries on the internet.  However, based on Celent’s recent new business and underwriting benchmarking report, Resetting the Bar: Key Metrics in Life Insurance New Business and Underwriting, nearly 52% of all insurance applications received are still in paper form.

There are a number of problems associated with paper applications, from missing forms to illegible writing, which creates a tremendous impact on an insurer’s ability to process an application quickly and/or accurately. Industry benchmarks have placed NIGO (not in good order) rates at greater than 50%. Electronic applications essentially eliminate NIGO.

Our research shows a significant reduction in new business cycle time for insurers between 2007 and 2016. For high face amount writers, the average cycle time decreased from 52 days to 44 days and from 42 days to 33 days for moderate face amount writers. When asked how the better results were obtained, the majority of insurers had seen a reduction in cycle time due to the use of technology. Some responses included “increase in eApp adoption and increased use of an automated UW engine,” “eApp, more skilled staff, cross-training with 60% automated underwriting, so huge reduction,” and “increase in auto-issue rate.” Obviously, the new business process is ripe for automation.

In Karen Monks’ and my new report, The Doorway to Straight-Through Processing: Life Insurance Electronic Applications 2016, we profile nine software vendors and their 10 electronic applications marketed to life insurance. The report focuses only on stand-alone solutions in North America. For each vendor the solution is described using the customer base, data sources supported, functionality, and technology, as well as implementation and costs.

In 2002, the buying public wasn’t ready to shop for insurance on-line.  That attitude is changing.  An electronic application, along with an underwriting rules engines and electronic contract delivery, to enable straight-through processing will soon be the norm. The time for eApplications has arrived.  An electronic application opens the door to transform the insurance buying experience, increase agent and customer satisfaction, and potentially sell more insurance.

  

 

It’s Not Just Twitter’s Problem: What Insurers Need to Know about DDoS and the Snake in the IoT Garden of Eden

On Friday October 21 a massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) made over 1,000 websites unreachable, including, Twitter, Netflix and PayPal. Two cloud providers, Amazon Web Services and Heroku reportedly also experienced periods of unavailability.

The attack was directed against a key part of the internet’s infrastructure, a domain name system provider, Dynamic Network Services aka Dyn. When a person enters a web address into a browser, such as google.com, the browser in turn needs an IP address (a string of numbers and periods) to actually connect with that web address. Domain name system providers are a critical source of IP addresses.

On Friday Dyn was the target of perhaps the largest ever DDoS, when its site was overcome by tens of million of requests for IP addresses. Because Dyn could not provide the correct IP addresses for Twitter and the other affected sites, those sites became unreachable for much of the day.

It also appears that the DDoS was mounted using a widely available malware program called Mirai. Mirai searches the web for IoT connected devices (such as digital video recorders and IP cameras) whose admin systems which can be captured using simple default user names and passwords, such as ADMIN and 12345. Mirai can then mobilize those devices into a botnet which executes a directed DDoS attack.

There are a number of potentially serious implications for insurers:

  • An insurer with a Connected Home or Connected Business IoT initiative that provides discounts for web-connected security systems, moisture detectors, smart locks, etc. may be subsidizing the purchase of devices which could be enlisted in a botnet attack on a variety of targets. This could expose both the policyholder and the insurer providing the discounts to a variety of potential losses.
  • If the same type of safety and security devices are disabled by malware, homeowners and property insurers may have increased and unanticipated losses.
  • As insurers continue to migrate their front-end and back-office systems to the cloud, the availability of those systems to customers, producers, and internal staff may drop below acceptable levels for certain periods of time.

The Internet of Things will change insurance and society in many positive ways. But the means used to mount the October 21 attack highlights vulnerabilities that insurers must recognize as they build their IoT plans and initiatives.

The Evolving Role of Architects

In the last couple of weeks I’ve had the great opportunity to spend time with IT architects of various sorts both inside and outside of the insurance industry. The discussions have been illuminating and offer different visions and futures both for technology that supports insurers and for the future of the architecture function in insurers.

One of the main events that allowed for this conversation was a round table held in London with architects from insurers. The main topics were the relevance of microservices style architectures to insurance, the role of the architects in AI and InsurTech and the future role of architects at insurers. Another event that offered an interesting contrast was the inaugural London Software Architecture Conference which I'll call SACon below (Twitter feed).

Microservices

I won't fully define microservices here but briefly it’s an approach to delivering software where each service is built as it’s own application which can be scaled independently from other services.

Microservices as a way of delivering software was the default approach at the SACon. There were sessions where architects sharing stories about why sometimes you had to work with a monolith or even making the case for not having the services in discrete applications. Meanwhile at the round table the monolith was the default still with the case being made for microservices in some parts of the architecture.

There are use cases where microservices make a great deal of sense, particularly in already distributed systems where a great deal of data is being streamed between applications. Here the infrastructure of microservices and the libraries supporting the reactive manifesto such as Hysterix and Rx* (e.g. RxJava) and indeed one insurer related their use of microservices to support IoT. Others discussed using this style of approach and the tooling surrounding these architectures to launch new products and increase change throughput but in all cases these were far from replacing the core architecture.

For now microservices is not the default for insurer software but is certainly a tool in the box. An observation or two from SACon from those looking to adopt: First it doesn’t solve the question of how big a service or a component is, something architects need to discuss and refine and; Second, microservices needs a great deal of automation to make work, a topic covered in our DevOps report to be published shortly.

Architects and AI

I have a background with training and experience both in computer science, AI and machine learning. One thing that I noticed going to the analytics conferences where AI is discussed is the absence of IT representation – plenty of actuaries, MI/BI folks, marketing folks – was this a place for architects?

Most insurers present at the round table had activity within the organisation for AI. For the most part only data architects are involved in this discussion – AI being distinct from business and applications architecture for now. It’s my opinion that AI components will form part of the wider applications architecture in the future, with AI components being as common place as programmed ones.

Architects and InsurTech

Here is an area where architects can more immediately contribute in a meaningful way both in reviewing opportunities and unique capabilities from InsurTech firms and in discussing integration where acquisition rather than investment is the goal.

The challenge here of course is the age old challenge for architects – to have a seat in the discussion the architect function needs to demonstrate the value it can bring and it’s internal expertise.

Finally, one amusing discussion I had was with a few architects from startups. As I discussed legacy systems they also related seeing legacy systems in their organisations – albeit the legacy systems were 2 or 4 years old rather than 20 or 40 years old. The intriguing thing here was the reasons for them becoming legacy were the same as insurers – availability of skills, supportability and responsiveness to changing demands. It may hearten architects at insurers that start ups aren’t immune to legacy issues!

 

 

In search of a new ‘dominant design’ for the industry. What does insurtech have to offer?

There is little in the world of insurtech happening today that insurers couldn’t arguably choose to do for themselves if they were motivated to do it. They have the capital to invest. They have resources and could hire to fill gaps in any new capabilities required. They importantly understand the market and know how to move with the trends. And yet, despite having all of these things, they readily engage with the start-up community to do the things that arguably they could do for themselves.  So, why is that?   

In Making the Most of the Innovation Ecosystem, Mike Fitzgerald’s observes the main cultural differences between insurers and the start-ups they court. These cultural differences give us a strong clue as to why insurers engage with start-ups, even though on paper they do not and should not need them.

Alongside these deep cultural differences, I believe that there is another angle worth exploring to help answer the question, and that’s the market’s maturity stage and, with it, the strategies required to succeed.

One model that helps explain this relates to the work of Abernathy and Utterback on dynamic innovation and the concept of the ‘dominant design’. To be relevant to this discussion, you first need to believe that we’re on the cusp of a shift from an old world view of the industry based upon a well-understood and stable design towards one where substantial parts of the insurance proposition and value network are up for grabs. You also need to believe that, for a period at least, these two (or more) worlds will co-exist.

So, here’s a quick overview of the model (in case you’re not familiar with it)…

Settling on a “Dominant Design”

First introduced way back in the mid-1970s and based upon empirical research (famously using conformance towards the QWERTY keyboard as an example), Abernathy and Utterback observed that when a market (or specifically a technology within a market) is new, there first exists a period of fluidity where creativity and product innovation flourishes. During this period, huge variation in approaches and product designs can co-exist as different players in the market experiment with what works and what does not.

In this early fluid stage, a market is typically small, and dominated by enthusiasts and early adopters. Over time, a dominant design begins to emerge as concepts become better understood and demand for a certain style of product proves to be more successful than others. Here, within an insurance context, you'd expect to see high levels of change and a preference for self-build IT systems in order to control and lower the cost of experimentation.

Once the dominant design has been established, competition increases and market activity switches from product innovation to process innovation – as each firm scrambles to find higher quality and more efficient ways to scale in order to capture a greater market share. This is the transitionary stage. 

Finally, at the specific stage, competitive rivalry intensifies spurred on by new entrants emulating the dominant design, incremental innovation takes hold and a successful growth (or survival) strategy switches to one that either follows a niche or low-cost commodity path. Within an insurance context, outsourcing and standardisation on enterprise systems are likely to dominate discussions.

Applying the ‘dominant design’ concept to the world of insurance and insurtech

Building upon the co-existence assumption made earlier, within the world of insurtech today, there are broadly (and crudely) two types of firm: (1) those focused on a complete proposition rethink (such as Trov, Slice and Lemonade); and (2) those focused on B2B enablement (such as Everledger, Quantemplate and RightIndem). The former reside in ‘Fluid’ stage (where the new ‘dominant design’ for the industry has not yet been set and still may fail) and the latter in the ‘Transitionary’ stage (where the dominant design is known, but there are just better ways to do it).

Figure: Innovation, Insurance and the 'Dominant Design'

picture4

(Source: Celent – Adapted from Abernathy and Utterback (1975)

Outside of insurtech, within the 'Specific' stage, there is the traditional world of insurance (where nearly all of the world’s insurance premiums still sit by the way) that is dominated by incumbent insurers, incumbent distribution firms, incumbent technology vendors, and incumbent service providers.

So what? 

What I like about this model is that it starts to make better sense of what I believe we’re seeing in the world around us. It also helps us to better classify different initiatives and partnership opportunities, and encourages us to identify specific tactics for each stage – the key lesson being "not to apply a ‘one-size fits’ all strategy to the firm".

Finally, and more importantly, it moves the debate on from being one about engaging insurtech start-ups purely to catalyze cultural change (i.e. to effect the things that the incumbent firms cannot easily do for themselves) towards one begging more strategic and structural questions to be asked, such as will a new ‘dominant design’ for the industry really emerge?, what will be its time-frame to scale?, and what specific actions are required to respond (i.e. to lead or to observe and then fast-follow).

Going back to my original question “What does insurtech have to offer?”. Insurers can do nearly all of what is taking place within insurtech as it exists today by themselves…but, as stated at the start of this blog, if, and only if, they are motivated to do so.

And there’s the rub. Many incumbents have been operating very successfully for so long in the ‘specific’ stage optimizing their solutions that making the shift required to emulate a ‘fluid’ stage is a major undertaking – why take the risk?. However, this is not the only issue that is holding them back. For me, the bigger question remains one of whether there is enough evidence to show the existence of an emerging new ‘dominant design’ for the industry in the ‘fluid’ stage that will scale to a size that threatens the status quo. Consequently, in the meantime, partnering and placing strategic investments with insurtech firms capable of working in a more ‘fluid’ way may offer a smarter more efficient bet in the meantime.

In a way, what we’re seeing today happening between insurers and insurtech firms  is the equivalent of checking out the race horses in the paddock prior to a race.  Let the race begin!