The Great AI Wars

The Great AI Wars

Last week saw one of the last big players make their position in machine learning and AI clearer at Apple's WWDC event with the launch of their machine learning options. These days you're not a credible large cloud provider if you don't provide some interesting APIs around machine learning and AI with the likes of Google, IBM, Amazon, Microsoft (Azure), and Alibaba (Aliyun) to name but a few. Apple's discussion focuses on being able to embed these technologies on the device with the Apps rather than perhaps the building of the models and the execution – much less focus on pushing data into the cloud.

The war I speak of in the title however, is not some dystopian future where humanity fights for survival but rather the current war over talent that enables the use of these technologies. Insurers going through digital transformations and looking deeply at their analytics are finding they are competing with ever more unlikely companies for talent including rising InsurTech firms as observed in previous blogs. The good news is that basic machine learning capability and training is increasingly available as the democratisation of machine learning continues apace – in fact if you look at Apple's documentation this discusses the ease downloading and converting models and integrating them to Apps rather than the nuances of various training algorithms.

Machine learning isn't new to insurance with coverage in our predictive analytics reports courtesy of Nicolas Michellod and case studies. It is clear however that these tools and techniques are increasingly being embedded into solutions throughout the insurance eco-system and beyond – and they are raising customer expectations. A discussion on what this means for core systems is given in my recent report here, as well as a discussion on what this means for new front end opportunities with the rise of chat bots in our discussion on conversational systems and a broader discussion on the differences in designing intelligent systems versus programmed ones is discussed in designing the aware machine.

While AI is a battleground for the big players for insurers it is becoming an increasingly accessible source of new approaches and automation – both an opportunity to better serve customers as well as cut costs. The ease with which machine learning and AI can be embedded into simple applications now will only increase adoption and there are small things any insurer can do. Of course if you want to go much deeper, as pointed out in this Harvard Business Review article, if your company isn't good at analytics, it's not ready for AI. I disagree a little with the authors perhaps, we're in a world where anyone can do something – one can just download and convert a model and incorporate it into our systems as pitched by Apple.

For those looking to go further, the good news is there are many vendors that can help, and many partners too of all shapes and sizes. I'm happy to say the InsurTech investments in the industry are only increasing this number and the opportunities for applied AI in insurance. Further, there are many conferences discussing both analytics and the rise of AI – if you're attending or looking for them do get in touch, I or my colleagues would love to discuss.

Reflections from the Digital Insurance Agenda, Amsterdam

Reflections from the Digital Insurance Agenda, Amsterdam

Earlier this month Craig Beattie and I ventured off to Amsterdam to attend the Digital Insurance Agenda (DIA), where we also delivered a keynote. This was the event’s second year and, within just 12 months, it has grown significantly to around 850 people – attracting insurers, innovative technology players (from both the establishment and budding entrepreneurs), and investors from across Europe and beyond. The format is a sprightly mix of keynote presentations, panels, and live demonstrations. And, like last year, it was another great mix of people and ideas, each focused on driving change in customer engagement across the industry through technology.

(Venue: Gashouder at the Westergasfabriek. An impressive venue – with Celent on stage somewhere up there at the front :-))

Key take-aways for me were:

  • Distribution and front-end engagement remains a strong area of focus for innovation. However, unlike recent history where investment has been heavily channelled into mobile or touch-enabled browser experiences, the presence of chat and other app-less modes of interaction were strongly evidenced throughout most of the live demos. This has been a hot trend over the last 12 months, and where Celent has explored both insurer and consumer attitudes towards it (see Celent report: Applying Conversational Commerce to Insurance: Aligning IT to the Machine World). Given the issues that many insurers have had with trying to encourage customers to download their apps and engage with them through them, it’s not hard to see why 'smart chat' is being pursued so aggressively.
     
  • Heavier focus on the use of data for risk profiling and the application of emerging AI techniques (beyond chat use-cases). Personally, I find it incredible just how low the entry barriers have become for experimenting with data and AI. The perfect storm of huge compute power via the cloud, open-source and pay-per-use models for advanced technology enables those with relatively modest means and a great idea to get started. For me, this continues to be one of the most interesting areas in our industry for mining value. It’s also an area that insurers still find a challenge (see Celent report: Tackling the Big Data Challenges in Global Insurance: Differences Across Continents and Use Cases).
     
  • Celent has been tracking the development of innovation partnerships across the industry for a number of years (see Celent report: Insurer-Startup Partnerships: How to Maximize Insurtech Investments). At DIA, it was easy to see this in action. The vast majority of firms presenting were not a direct threat to the industry at large, but instead were exemplars of better ways of doing things through the use of smart technology. It’s not hard to envision that a few of the firms demonstrating at DIA will walk straight into pilots following the event.

The event was closed with a keynote from Scott Walcheck of Trov. Scott shared openly some of the progress that they have been making – which, to me, feels impressive. For example, they now have ~60-70 engineers working on the team and claim to be growing revenue by ~44% month-on-month (albeit from a starting position of zero).

Out of all of the insurtech start-up activity globally, there are just a handful of firms (in my opinion) who have the potential to really shake things up – and Trov is one of these.  They now have the capital, the engineering capacity and the partnerships to do some truly incredible things – if they choose to.

I also found it interesting to hear that they have started to evolve their business model into three focus areas, being: (1) Trov as a direct brand; (2) White-labelled Trov; and (3) Insurance-as-a-service, where they will rent their platform to partners – plus with an aspiration to evolve it into auto, home and other lines.  Given Celent’s focus on technology research across the industry, this last model-type is of keen interest. Trov’s engineering capacity is already a similar size to (and in some cases larger than) many mid-to-small insurance carriers. It is also larger than some of the traditional independent solution technology providers out there. Could they be the next big technology player on the scene in addition to their existing branded business?  Only time will tell, but it is clear they are already demonstrating how insurtech represents a new way of delivering insurance product development.

For more commentary on DIA, see Craig Beattie’s Moments on Twitter.  Also, keep checking the DIA website as they will shortly release some of the videos from the event.

The Real Value from Insurtech — A New Way to Develop Products

The Real Value from Insurtech — A New Way to Develop Products

The long-term sustainable value from insurtech lies in its ability to change how insurance products are created. The economic model behind how startups bring their products to market is bending — no, breaking — the traditional development cost curve. Insurers which recognize this dynamic and adjust their innovation activities accordingly will create more value form insurtech than their competitors.

Insurtech has already gone through at least two iterations in its short lifespan. A little more than a year ago, the market was abuzz about widespread disruption. Now that it is recognized that there is value in integrating insurtech, partnership is the rage. The next phase will see an increase in greenfield operations. Over the next 12 months, the economics of insurtech development will result in a significant increase in spin-offs and stand-alone propositions.

The reasoning is this – economics will motivate different behavior. Traditional insurance product development is typically characterized by these approaches/tools/techniques:

  • Product or process-centered design
  • Waterfall development (although agile techniques are catching on)
  • Centralized, on-premise infrastructure
  • Package or custom-built software
  • Periodic release and control procedures
  • Service-oriented architecture (SOA) integration

Contrast that with insurtech operations. They are typically characterized by these approaches/tools/techniques:

  • Customer-centered design focused on delivering a minimal viable product as quickly as possible to the market
  • Agile development using small teams
  • Cloud infrastructure
  • Microservices architecture
  • Use of DevOps to control updates
  • Use of open source software
  • API integration

Here is where the economics comes in. Without reading ahead, answer the following question:

If you spend $1 delivering a specific set of functionality in the traditional approach,
what amount would be needed to deliver exactly the same functionality using the new development approach?

I have been asking this question for the last two months. It is a tricky one, because the best input comes from the limited number of people who have delivered insurance products in both the traditional and the new development approach. These few professionals have “lived” both environments. My sample size is small so far, but I have polled about 30 people.

The answer ranges between 20 and 30 cents on the dollar. So, call it a quarter. That means that a $4 million dollar project delivered with the traditional approach is only $1 million using the new tools/techniques. Or, better yet, entire propositions, which include changes to both the insurance product and a new automation platform, can be delivered for under $4 million. (For more on this, see the @Celent_Research report Slice Labs: A Case Study of Insurance Disruption.)

With this cost profile, a greenfield startup approach becomes much more attractive. Investing in a new product/market approach is much less risky given the smaller level of investment. If we marry this with the innovation fatigue expected as incremental efforts fail to deliver sufficient value to the core business, the environment is ripe for spin-offs.

This is not to say that the current “partner with a promising insurtech firm” or the “we want to make innovation part of our culture” approaches will go away. However, expect to see significantly more stand-alone efforts than we have seen in the past.

Immediate adjustments to this opportunity include:

  • Insurers should include multiple start ups in their innovation portfolios
  • Insurance software/IT services providers and venture groups should help both insurers and insurtech firms to set up greenfield propositions
  • Insurtechs should look beyond incremental solutions and apply their talent and techniques to entire insurance propositions

As some of the spin-offs succeed (and most of them fail), insurers will learn how to develop in the new environment and will transfer these techniques to their core business. As a result, the true value of insurtech will not be an either/or choice, but change through absorption of new approaches and techniques.

Insurtech = new way to develop insurance products

Slice Labs Case Study: New Economics at Work

Slice Labs Case Study: New Economics at Work

Just published: a detailed case study on the first year of Slice Labs. (see @Celent_Research http://bit.ly/2pgJ65b ) This insurtech delivers a tailored insurance contract to sharing economy operators on a digital platform. Homeshare coverage is live in production in multiple states and rideshare was just released to pilot. The experience of Slice Labs provides a valuable benchmark against which insurers, insurance technology providers, and insurtech firms can measure their innovation efforts.

Truly disruptive insurance innovations are rare. Most insurtech propositions are service improvements for current products in existing markets.  Slice Labs is disruptive in that it targets an underserved customer niche with a proposition that involves changes to the core insurance product using new technology tools and development methods. The solution was delivered to pilot within one year at a predicted and managed cost within the limits of their initial capital raise. This combination of insurance expertise, new tech skills, and dev ops processes illustrates a new model for insurance development.

Some of the key lessons from the case study include:

  • A one-year timeframe and an accurately predicted investment delivered a minimum viable insurance product and IT platform. This low-cost threshold and speed challenge in-house insurance innovation approaches and argue for wider use of greenfield initiatives.
  • The effort and elapsed time necessary to identify a risk sharing partner are significant and should not be underestimated.
  • Affinity groups/communities of interest can create significant pull demand.

This model is repeatable. The challenge for incumbent insurers is to develop approaches which allow them to benefit from the new economics at work in insurance product development.

Lost in Innovation?

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.

Learning from the Best: Operational Excellence from a Model Insurer Viewpoint

Learning from the Best:  Operational Excellence from a Model Insurer Viewpoint

I am privileged again this year to be part of the team that judged the Celent Model Insurer nominations. My focus is on the nominations in the Operational Excellence theme. In reality, every nomination demonstrates a high degree of operational excellence. It is a tough job to choose only three winners in the category. 

You may wonder how Celent decides which nominations are the best of the best. We look at the disciples included in successful operational outcomes. Achieving operational excellence, requires transforming processes and systems into competitive advantages by making them leaner, faster, more flexible and of higher quality.

It’s not just what is done, but how it’s done. The project should have lasting effects and transform the organization in multiple aspects: Processes, Technology, Culture and Business Model

This year’s operational excellence nominations run the gamut from project methodology to straight through processing to infrastructure outsourcing.  Following are examples of a few of the nominations: 

  • A P&C insurer in the Cayman Islands moved to a virtual business. Instead of replacing their on premise infrastructure, they transitioned to a cloud environment for all systems including: core insurance operations, human resources, and call center. By moving to a third-party cloud provider, the insurer could go global to support local operations with consistent technology expertise to host and maintain the applications.
  • One of India’s leading life insurance companies which had experienced tremendous growth of 380% in the last financial year required a simple, streamlined and cost effective system to service their growing customer base and extend the enterprise for continued growth and market penetration. The company implemented a document management solution for processing new business and claims. The solution is designed so that it requires no or minimal manual intervention for the end-to-end document life cycle process.
  • An innovative testing solution created in collaboration between a North American P&C insurer and its vendor was implemented after it was found that the existing testing environment, approach and methodology was causing delays and quality assurance problems for the transformation program. The solution is a cloud based, open-source testing environment that has reduced both risk and cost by improving the quality of the testing. 
  • A North America supplemental benefits insurer adopted an Agile project methodology in response to its need of modernization and in recognition that it will undergo more change as the industry continues to capitalize on social, mobile, wearables, etc. The change brought about increased accountability, efficiency and organization that have allowed the company to be poised and ready for all opportunities, producing results at record speed.
  • A reinsurer based in Europe implemented artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to allow automatic verification of clauses in contracts and matching of official comments stored in a large database.  This allows experts to focus their attention on parts of the contract that have not been seen before and will allow back searching thought any collection of documents for clauses containing issues of interest as well as comparing contracts on a clause level with calculated accuracy scores.   

As you can see from this sampling of nominations, choosing the winners was hard.  However, it is easy for you to be on hand to network with and learn from the insurers and vendors who submitted the winning projects.  Please join Celent in Boston on April 4 for Innovation and Insight Day where the winners of the 2017 Model Insurer awards will be announced.  You can register here.   

Insurtech 2016=Hype; Insurtech 2017=Value

Insurtech 2016=Hype; Insurtech 2017=Value

As I look back on insurance innovation in 2016 and forward to 2017, the insurtech phenomenon looms large. But, the sight in my rearview mirror is very different from the road before me through my windshield.

Behind I see great excitement, new patterns of interactions, and intriguing applications of technology. I also note unwarranted claims of massive industry disruption and extensive business model revolution. The last few months have brought some more measured discussion, especially around new partnerships. (For research data on incumbent-startup partnerships, see the Celent reports Accelerating Insurance Transformation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Innovation Relationships (Jan 2016) and Insurer-Startup Partnerships: How to Maximize Insurtech Investments (June 2016).)

It may take until the middle of 2017, but I expect to see a move away from hype and to value. In some cases this will be positive value; in others, it will be learning or failure (in other words, negative value). Several levers are in motion:

  • There are more players, and thus a greater chance of success (or failure).
  • More time will have passed for propositions which are currently online to produce results.
  • More efforts will come to production in the next few months; and for other initiatives, the time (read money) to prove their hypothesis will run out.
  • There will be increased recognition of the importance of partnerships as the tedious work of integration proceeds.
  • From a macroeconomic standpoint, interest rates in the US will rise, increasing the attraction of alternative investments and making the competition for investment more fierce.
  • Finally, Brexit and a new US political administration will result in increased uncertainty, which will change risk attitudes.

These challenges will be good for insurtech as they will prove that the easiest thing to do in innovation is to “write a check.” The majority of the difficult work of making insurtech part of a comprehensive insurance innovation approach is in front of us, and 2017 will be the pivotal year when the winners make this happen.

You Must Be Present to Win: Reflections on InsureTech Connect and the Conference Season

You Must Be Present to Win: Reflections on InsureTech Connect and the Conference Season

October is a busy month for insurance technology conferences. I am fortunate in my job to be able to attend these events, and I always come into the end of the year with a refreshed gauge on the major challenges and opportunities facing our industry.

Having attended six events in the last five weeks, I can report that the interest in innovation is at an all-time high. In multiple presentations, speakers outlined how changing consumer preferences, improved technical capabilities, and powerful market forces are reshaping our industry. “Digital,” “digitization,” and “digitizing” seemed the most frequently used words, followed closely by “innovation.” However, despite all the talk and attention about change, I observed a problem — there were not many insurance leaders attending. Given the need to gain perspectives on how to move the industry forward through the forces that are under way, this is a red flag.

As a data point, consider InsureTech Connect. (Full disclosure: Oliver Wyman, the parent company of Celent was the main sponsor of the conference.) The inaugural event crushed its attendance goals, attracting more than 1,500 professionals. It brought together groups of people that traditionally do not attend the same show: – insurers and reinsurers, technology startups, venture capitalists, and private equity firms. An analysis of a random sample of more than 700 attendees shows that there were equal numbers from startups and from insurers. I would hope that the 2,700 US insurers would be better represented.  

Of the insurers that were there, most were from the firms which have stated publically that they are aggressively pursuing innovation in their business models. Undoubtedly, these folks were taking the pulse of their competition and looking for opportunities. However, the numbers demonstrate that the vast majority of carriers were not there. In addition to the small number, I noticed that, of those attending, most had titles which were at the execution level, not the decision-making level. There were some some senior leaders, but not as many as I would hope.

At the other, more traditional conferences, there was great interest, and some concern, in new technology, emerging business models, and the Insuretech market. Many of the questions dealt with “What are our competitors doing?” “How do we learn more or get more involved?” “What are the real opportunities and threats?” There clearly is a desire to know and understand what is under way.

My headline from the conference season is: “you must be present to win”. As insurers finalize their plans for 2017, I encourage them to broaden the number and type of conferences for the coming year and include a mix of both “traditional” and “emerging” gatherings, Particular emphasis should be placed on attendance by senior leaders with decision-making responsibility.

Such adjustments will be a welcome indication that our industry is moving beyond words and into action.

The Evolving Role of Architects

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!