Robotics, bots and chocolate teapots

Increasingly in operational efficiency and automation circles we’re hearing about bots and robotics. As a software engineer in days past and a recovering enterprise architect I have given up biting my tongue and repeatedly note that, “we have seen it all before.” I’ve written screen scrapers that get code out of screens, written code to drive terminal applications and even hunted around user interfaces to find buttons to press. The early price comparison websites over a decade ago used these techniques to do the comparison. These techniques work for a while but are desperately fragile when someone changes the name of a button, or a screen or a screen flow. However, they can help. I recall a while ago a manager lamenting ‘the solution’ was about as useful as a chocolate teapot. A useful 10 minutes hunting for this video of a chocolate teapot holding boiling water for one whole pot of tea made the point for me. Sometimes all you need is one pot of tea.
Tea poured from a chocolate tea pot

Tea poured from a chocolate tea pot

So it’s not new, some bots may be fragile and with my “efficiency of IT spend” hat on (the one typically worn by enterprise architects) stitching automation together by having software do what people do is an awful solution – but as a pragmatist sometimes it’s good enough. Things have moved on. Rather than a physical machine running this with a ghost apparently operating mouse and keyboard we have virtual machines and monitoring of this is a lot better than it used to be. Further machine learning and artificial intelligence libraries are now getting robust enough to contribute meaningfully smart or learning bots into the mix that can do a bit more than rote button pressing and reading screens. In fact this is all reminiscent of the AI dream of mutli-agent systems and distributed artificial intelligence where autonomous agents collaborated on learning and problem solving tasks amongst other things. The replacement of teams of humans working on tasks with teams of bots directly aligns with this early vision. The way these systems are now stitched together owes much to the recent work on service oriented architecture, component orchestration and modern approaches to monitoring distributed Internet scale applications. For outsourcers it makes a great deal of sense. The legacy systems are controlled and unlikely to change, the benefits are quick and if these bots do break they can have a team looking after many bots across their estate and fix them swiftly. It may not be as elegant as SOA purists would like but it helps them automate and achieve their objectives. The language frustrates me though, albeit bots is better than chocolate teapots. I’ve heard bot referred to as a chunk of code to run, a machine learning model and a virtual machine running the code. I’ve even heard discussion comparing the number staff saved to the number of bots in play – I can well imagine operations leads in the future including bot efficiency in their KPIs. Personally, I’d rather we discussed them for what they are – virtual desktops, screen scraper components, regression models, decision trees, code, bits of SQL were appropriate, etc. rather than bucket them together but perhaps I’m too close to the technology. In short bots may not be a well-defined term but the collection it describes is another useful set of tools, that are becoming increasingly robust, to add to the architects toolkit.

More Q&A following our webinar on the Strategies and Options for Managing Closed Blocks: Life, Pension and Annuity Edition

Since Karen Monks and I held our webinar on the strategies and options for managing closed blocks, we have had a number of follow-up questions. We’ll aim to answer as many as possible in this blog.

If you any further questions, then please do not hesitate to contact us directly.

What regulatory /compliance problems do insurers foresee while migrating to BPOs/TPAs for closed blocks in the US?

When an insurer considers BPO / TPA as a solution, most regulators around the world express a keen desire to stay close to the decision making process. In some countries, there is also a requirement to notify the regulator as well as the policyholder. At the centre of the regulators’ concern is to ensure the fair treatment of the policyholder and, increasingly, to also ensure that their information, as well financial assets, are secure.

In the US, TPAs increasingly are required to follow many of the licensing and record keeping rules that insurers must follow, thus an insurer would do well to understand the guidelines under which TPAs must work in each state. The insurer will want to ensure that the TPA selected is compliant and protecting the security of the insurers data and information.

Another issue that insurers noted as a result of the compliance and regulatory requirements related to notifying policyholders of the use of a TPA was the potential for some sleeping policies to awaken. This may cause an uptick in claims as beneficiaries come forward.

Many insurers that we spoke with recommended engaging the regulator early in the decision process; as this was considered key to obtaining early guidance and also helping to manage their expectations throughout the process.

Do you have a sense as to the number or percentage of insurers who see their closed blocks as a ‘problem’ (i.e. that they can’t manage, are losing staff who can support the product, the costs are escalating etc)?

Not as a number or percentage. Through our interviews, it was clear that economic uncertainty, low investment returns and the availability of capital to support generous product guarantees are behind driving an increased interest in the topic. Unfortunately, only those who have gone public with a decision already or are currently in a distressed state can be identified easily as having a ‘problem’.

In our survey, it was interesting to see that many insurers see expense reduction, releasing capital and avoiding management distraction as three of the main reasons for pursuing a strategy. Additionally, nearly all insurers that we spoke to were actively investigating the issue, although some were clearly further ahead in their thinking than others. Those insurers we spoke to without a burning platform appear to be just entering their strategy definition phase.

What were the roles of the individuals interviewed for this study?

They were all senior managers within their firms (i.e. Head Of, VP, Director), with a responsibility for strategy, operations or IT.

What would an administrative reinsurance strategy be classified according to this study, Divest (sell-off)?

This proposition is a mix of liability offset (via the reinsurance arrangement) together with a BPO arrangement. Many reinsurers use existing BPO players in the market to provide the administrative service for them. Consequently, when considering options and depending upon the business drivers, it may be a good idea to evaluate how a pre-packaged proposition from a reinsurer versus a component solution compares.

Are you aware of any real success in the UK or Europe with the convert/buy-out option?

Conversions and ‘buy-out’s are tough. Ultimately, success depends on gaining agreement of every policyholder sitting in a closed block on a system to agree to the conversion / buy-out prior to being able to decommission the platform. These strategies can also attract a significant amount of regulatory oversight as they aim to ensure that policyholder interests are not being impacted unfairly.

Unfortunately, in our experience, this is not a well-documented area with many success stories that can be referenced. The largest and most notable examples tend to come from distressed insurers or funds where the policyholder is left with the choice of either accepting lower guarantees or investment performance in exchange for financial stability, or have the insurer or fund face bankruptcy.

Are companies considering BPO+ITO as an option to outsource or is it individual BPO and ITO only?

Unfortunately, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ for the market and the solution will depend to a large extent on what agreements the insurer already has in place, such as pre-existing ITO agreements, and how much outsourcing has already occurred. Consequently, insurers are still looking at both options.

From our perspective, there are a growing number of propositions being developed for BPO+ITO in the market, albeit targeted largely at satisfying a specific product type, such as Annuities, Protection, LTC or pensions. The trend is to market these propositions on an ‘as a service’ or outcome based model enabling the insurer to move onto a variable cost base quickly and achieve a degree of certainty over future costs.

Did you find any cases where a company had outsourced to a supplier and then taken it back at end of contract? Is it even feasible to take back a block if supplier and insurer decides it doesn’t work?

No. We did not research this specific issue. However, you are right to raise this as a concern. Any insurer considering a BPO option (especially where replatforming is involved) should consider carefully how they plan to exit the BPO contract should performance not meet expectations or as a result of a change in strategy. We recommend that this question be addressed early as part of an RFP and effective due diligence activity. If replatforming, it’s an essential consideration to understand the approach to migrating off the platform and, where relevant, the transfer of technical IP alongside it.

Does Celent have any example organisations in the UK and US that have successfully reduced costs of back books through technology transformation?

Yes. Please look at Celent’s report entitled ‘Seven lessons from a successful platform transformation’.

Have you seen any examples of successful technology transformations without BPO?

We are writing a Solution Spectrum report for release later this year. In preparation for this report, we have asked consultancies, BPO service providers, system integrators and software vendors to provide us with brief case studies on this topic as we recognise this is an area of interest.

Certainly, there are successful platform transformations and projects involving decommissioning or wrapping systems as we hope that these case studies will show. However, it is often difficult to look at these cases in isolation without considering the wider impact on business strategy and supporting business models.

What are the key differentiators that insurers look for in a vendor when they consider the technology transformation option?

A great question. Unfortunately, we did not ask this question in our research so cannot answer categorically.

However, the primary drivers cited for technology transformation include expense reduction and removal of the technology obsolescence risk. Consequently, based on our other research into related topics, it is reasonable to assume that insurers are likely to be focused on the ability to reduce costs quickly, the ability to reduce the risk of obsolescence, and long-term flexibility.

Is there a business case for technology vendors to invest in creating a standardized methodology for addressing closed blocks of business?

This is a ‘it depends’ answers. There is no ‘cookie cutter’ approach being marketed currently. Some vendors have acquired or are aligning their existing capabilities to address the closed block issue. The more advanced propositions have aligned common insurance frameworks and methods with their technical assets to support the process.

What platforms are you seeing being most used to host closed blocks?

From what we have seen, there is no single platform that is becoming the default for hosting closed block business. Although many BPO providers will standardise on a single platform for their operations, this platform together with all of the dependent systems differs between each competitor. However, there are a few platforms that appear to be at the heart of operations for managing closed blocks. Among others, these include: Accenture’s ALIP; CSC’s product suite of CyberLife, WMA, Integral and AIA; Infosys McCamish; TCS BaNCS; and many more home-grown or inherited solutions.

When selecting a platform for closed blocks, the reality is that BPO providers and insurers still need to take each decision about a closed block individually and evaluate the RoI for moving specific product groups versus retaining them until run-off. Until successful migrations become part of the fabric of normal IT operations, there is likely to be a number of platforms running in concert for a little longer.

You said in the webinar that this was mainly an older mature market problem today. When will we see the same issue arising in younger / emerging markets?

Our view is that it is inevitable that the same issues will be experienced elsewhere in younger and emerging markets unless those markets consider the lifespan of these products from the outset at their design stage and put in place strategies to anticipate product longevity and the run-off. The good news is that these markets have the opportunity to learn from developed markets and not to make the same mistake of focusing too heavily on new product launch without actively managing product retirement.

Also, it is important to note that software and systems integration methods have matured enormously over the last 10-20 years meaning that the technical risk of transformation and large scale data migration is much reduced, although it should be noted that the project risk around poor execution and leadership may still be present.

Successful transformations and migrations are possible and no longer a CIO’s bravest decision.

Strong Step Forward for Life and Annuity SaaS Solutions

Every now and then a strategic alliance occurs that makes a lot of sense. Today, McCamish Systems, an InfoSys BPO company, and Pegasystems announced a strategic partnership that will leverage the best of both their solutions, namely, McCamish’s VPAS Life and Pegasystem’s BPM technology. (See http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20111207005172/en/McCamish-Systems-Infosys-BPO-Company-Announces-Strategic for full announcement.) McCamish VPAS Life is a policy administration system driving their BPO offering. VPAS Life provides full end-to-end processing from new business fulfillment and underwriting STP to claims. Pegasystems BPM technology is a robust BPM and case management solution providing configurable business process solutions, standards based integration solutions, strong rules capabilities and process metering and monitoring.

VPAS Life was evaluated in a recent Celent NA Policy Administration Systems report, with a solid showing in advanced technology, breadth of functionality and customer base. (See http://www.celent.com/reports/north-american-policy-administration-systems-2011-life-health-and-annuities-abcd-vendor-view for the full report.) However, it was also noted that “with a mature data model and an older code base, there are limitations to what can be achieved via configuration–for most applications, customized coding will be required.” In addition, while customer feedback was positive, the front-end, case management and workflow capabilities are not best of breed solutions.

Pegasystems has been a leader in the BPM and more recently case management solution space, providing a powerful, configurable platform on which to build insurance processes and applications. While they have provided a framework in which large insurers have begun to wrap and build core solutions through their Insurance Industry Framework, there is still a lot of work to do to create system of record core systems. In addition, due to the robustness of the framework, Pegasystems’ solutions require high level skill sets.

This all leads back to the McCamish-Pegasystems partnership. Each solution compliments the other’s perfectly to provide a potentially, industry leading, and possibly changing, life insurance and annuity solution. McCamish will leverage the Pegasystems framework to provide a configurable and powerful BPM, case management insurance framework to enhance their already strong insurance experience and solution. McCamish will be able to take advantage of the speed to market Pegasystem Insurance framework provides, addressing some of the hurdles that small to mid-size insurers face with framework solutions by providing it as a SaaS offering and through InfoSys already has a strong Pegasystem BPM center of excellence.

While the actual implementation is yet to completed, and thus true benefits realized, Celent views this alliance as a potential game-changing partnership that will greatly enhance the SaaS options for all insurers, but especially for small to mid-size carriers in the life insurance and annuity market.

Is Your IT as Good as You Think It Is?

During a recent interview with a senior level leader within a large P&C insurer responsible for their outsourcing efforts, he made the comment that they plan to increase their use of BPO and explore SaaS solutions. However, he then went on to state that the biggest hurdle that they face in using SaaS is they do not really know how good they are to be able to compare if any vendor can do a better job than they can. This struck me as very on target and reflects the state of many insurers, although most will not admit it.

I’ve worked in IT for over 25 years with some very large and distinguished companies, as well as smaller, not so well known ones. In each case, I was fortunate to work with some very qualified and intelligent people. In most cases, we usually believed that “our” IT team could do the job better than anyone else. This is a great attitude to have from a team perspective and fitting to some degree for companies at the time. However, this can no longer be acceptable with the maturation of BPO and SaaS. You can no longer delude yourself into thinking you can do IT solutions (soup-to-nuts) better than any SaaS vendor, especially into today’s market where utilization, agility, speed to market, lower TCO are key business drivers. An insurer’s IT team may know the business and their IT systems better than anyone, but it doesn’t mean that they can support business solutions going forward better than anyone else.

I’m not suggesting that BPO and SaaS vendors can always support insurance applications more effectively and efficiently than an Insurer’s IT support staff, but insurers have to begin determining how well they actually perform to be able to decide if a SaaS or BPO vendor is a better long term solution. It would be like creating a baseball team that does nothing but practice and play games among themselves and believe that they have the best team around. Within most sports, the metrics to compare already exist. They do not exist within most IT development and support staff today. What is your current support level for your current applications? How much control do you really have over your applications and infrastructure? How secure is your data today? These are valid concerns stated by insurers today with respect to BPO and SaaS, but they should be the same questions insurers are asking of themselves.

BPO and SaaS are beginning to mature in the insurance space. The economy and competitive forces will drive these solutions forward. Those insurers that know how well they do IT today and can compare their own capabilities to potential vendors will be the ones that are able to make the smart choices with respect to what to outsource and what to keep in house. Those that do not will be the “lessons learned” stories over the next several years. (See “Approaching the Boiling Point: BPO, SaaS in Insurance” Celent report, due out December, 2010.)

Hardware Outsourcing vs. People Outsourcing

I’ve been doing research for several reports on the topic of IT outsourcing, some about utilizing cloud computing for hardware and some about working with vendors to handle consulting and development. While these two areas are conceptually very different, the approach and business values are quite similar.

One misconception about both is that they are used for “replacement.” By this I mean that an insurer uses cloud computing to replace their data center or an insurer utilizes an IT service provider to replace their IT organization. While in some instances this might be true, it is rarely the case.

The other misconception is that an insurer uses cloud computing or consulting services to lower costs. Lower cost might be one reason, but shouldn’t the only reason. Many CIOs, however, do approach IT outsourcing primarily for the perceived cost benefit, and Celent sees this as a mistake. In many cases, some or all of the long term costs might actually be higher. This does not mean a cost-sensitive insurer should avoid IT outsourcing, but, rather, should proceed with an outsourcing project while looking at the overall business values associated with it.

The added business values are the other area of similarly for hardware and development outsourcing. Both help a company increase capacity, one with increased server capacity and the other with increased human capacity. Both help a company access new capabilities that they didn’t have earlier; cloud computing providing rapid server deployment and failover (among other things), development outsourcing providing resources with skills sets that did not exist in house. And, finally, both work best when thought of as a long-term strategy that will complement the existing IT and not just as a temporary measure or as a replacement for existing resources.

The takeaway is that any organization looking at IT outsourcing–whether for hardware, software, or people–should focus not on cost but on long term business value. Organizations that only care about cost are often disappointed by the outcome. Organizations that have a strategy to bring new capabilities and business value to users will be successful.

Insurers Strategy Concerns: the big shift?

American and European insurers are currently facing hard times. While everybody can explain now how we got into this situation, it is still unclear how precisely financial companies and notably insurers will change their strategy in the near future and particularly how they will align their IT resources in order to respond in this fast changing environment.

In a recent report (“Bad News on the Street: Insurance IT Strategy and the Financial Crisis”), Celent reviews the different aspects that might have an impact on insurers strategists in the near future and evaluates which IT projects might be the preferred choices in this period of financial uncertainty. Not long ago, CIOs were working on initiatives aiming at capturing growth in mature markets, trying to ease the way they were doing business and emphasizing agility in priority. Nowadays it seems that insurers get more concerned about their expense ratio. Indeed, when assets are shrinking and trigger above-average depreciations, it is important to have profitable insured risks and clients in its books. What has caused troubles to the insurance sector in 2008 is not directly the recession coming but more the rapid decrease of values in the financial markets worldwide. Of course many will say that both are related and they are right but what is making the problem more complicated for insurance companies is the sudden and strong drop of the financial markets (30% for the Dow Jones and the DJ Euro Stoxx 50 from September to October 2008). There are past examples that help us better understand what is currently happening. For instance, in mid-June 2002 CREDIT SUISSE was forced to bail out its insurance company Winterthur, whose financial strength had suffered from the general malaise in stock markets and from the low level of confidence in insurers shown by consumers.

As we all know, financial markets are generally good indicators to anticipate economic cycles and based on their recent performance, it seems that investors are seeing a hard and potentially long recession ahead. In this situation, Celent believes that insurers will have to focus on basics. In other words, we expect insurers to perform a big strategic shift, which will lead them to get back to more prudence in terms of asset investments and to launch initiatives aiming at improving return on their insurance portfolio in order to improve their overall loss and expense ratios. To win the battle for the good risks, business intelligence will be an important IT resource. In order to improve their expense ratio, Business Process Management (BPM) and alternatively Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) might emerge as key IT initiatives in the near future. For instance, Zurich Financial Services has announced last October their plan to outsource their data-centers currently based in the US and in Switzerland in the frame of a more general cost saving plan.

Celent will publish its traditional annual insurance CIO survey in the first quarter of 2009 (for the US, Europe and Asia). We are going to know much more about insurers’ intentions soon.