New York Life: Insuring Business Success

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2009-09-29

New York Life Insurance Co., the nation’s largest mutual life insurer and a leading provider of financial services (more than $29 billion in 2008 insurance and investment sales), has built IT into a powerhouse that helps the business thrive at a time when many other financial institutions are reeling. Among other things, it has constructed an enterprise portal contact system that feeds CRM data and other information to agents in the field; a Web-based new-business/underwriting system that guides agents, customer service representatives and underwriters through the life insurance application process; and a workflow automation system that balances transactional loads across the firm’s regional processing centers.

More importantly, New York Life has constructed a framework that inextricably intertwines IT and business objectives. “In a period of economic turmoil, as others are looking to cut expenses, we are well-positioned to think and plan for the future,” says Eileen Slevin, senior vice president and CIO.

Agents of Change

Managing a portfolio of IT initiatives isn’t unusual. Every company must confront new technologies, changing work processes and a constantly evolving marketplace. What makes New York Life so unusual is that it has built a highly structured but flexible framework for managing IT across the enterprise.

The contact management portal, for example, lets agents view customer leads as quickly as they stream in; it gives them instant access to existing contacts, calendaring data and account notes; and provides a view into a client’s entire portfolio. In addition, agents can view contracts, peruse up-to-the-minute policy details, and read an array of manuals and resources. “They can get to it from any computer at any time,” says Jim Bain, first vice president of New York Life’s Corporate Information Department.

In fact, the system allows agents to tap into their data from “a single place rather than having it scattered across multiple applications,” Bain notes. New York Life, which has more than 11,000 agents in the United States, has tallied about 10,000 unique visits since the portal went live in January 2009. “It’s a single sign-on portal that provides access to any application or service running on it,” he says. “The goal is to make things as simple and seamless as possible for agents.”

The Web-based transaction management system, meanwhile, guides insurance agents, customer service representatives and underwriters through the entire process of filling out a customer application and gathering all the information required for approval. A typical life insurance application is about 20 pages long and includes customer data, medical information such as blood tests and physician statements, and motor vehicle records. “The process generally takes two or three weeks,” says Ken Toffolo, vice president of business architecture.

New York Life developed an interface that taps into medical and Department of Motor Vehicles data in real time. The system also flags missing information for agents and provides them with live status reports about customers.

The result? The company has trimmed the time required to complete the application approval process by 25 percent while improving accuracy. Although the system was introduced in 2005, IT continues to introduce new capabilities and ongoing workflow improvements.

Internal processes haven’t escaped the company’s attention either. In 2000, New York Life introduced a workflow management system that delivers policies, claims and other transactions to processing centers in multiple cities. In the past, balancing workloads was a problem. At times, some centers suffered from overload while others were underutilized.

As a result, the company developed an IT application designed to equalize the flow of work and optimize resources and labor. The workload-balancing system also allows New York Life to take a center offline and reroute transactions as needed.

Toffolo says that as powerful as the system is at present, it’s merely a steppingstone to more advanced capabilities. “The ultimate goal isn’t to just change the way we route work; it’s to move to a service-anywhere concept,” he says. “We want to deliver transactions and work to people at any location.”

Policy Matters

Although enterprise IT systems help New York Life harness the power and efficiency of digital technology, the company’s success is firmly rooted in a management structure that makes the IT department a valuable business asset to the overall enterprise. Slevin says that IT executives strive to maintain a forward-thinking perspective that extends seven to 12 years into the future. Moreover, the company has built processes that keep business and IT leaders closely connected.

The starting point is a business and technology strategy team that maintains a road map for the firm. “IT is focused on the business needs of the organization, along with the infrastructure and technology needed to support it,” Slevin says.

While the company has always had technology governance teams in place, this initiative, begun in 2007, has introduced greater discipline and broader team involvement. This, in turn, has allowed management to extend its planning from a two- to three-year window to a view of a decade or more.

Developing a road map required more than teams sitting down and flinging ideas against the wall, however. To peg a set of desired business capabilities and prioritize them, team members conducted interviews with senior-level business executives across various departments and functional domains.

The process initially identified 21 projects that New York Life deemed a top priority, and provided information about benefits and ROI. “We worked side by side with business leaders to ensure that we didn’t wind up with technology for technology’s sake,” Toffolo notes.

At the same time, the company has focused on the technical underpinnings of various projects. In 2007, IT developed a business reference architecture that maps processes across the entire organization and incorporates all technology systems and workflow needed to keep the enterprise running.

“The goal is to look at how enterprise processes are connected and how we can create greater alignment,” Slevin says, noting that the initiative extends upward all the way to the chairman’s office.

This approach is changing the way the insurance giant views technology investments. Using collaboration tools, including a wiki, the company has, for instance, dissected and documented all the steps involved in selling a policy.

The information is then used to design and build an IT architecture that’s optimized across various functions and systems. This process also helps the company identify missing needs and components, as well as conduct what-if scenarios. Whenever business or IT leaders consider a change, New York Life can study the potential outcome.

The same dedication to detail filters into financial planning. The IT department breaks potential projects into tactical and strategic components and works with finance to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. IT is tuned into budgets, spending, and the use of resources required to build and operate IT systems. A resulting scorecard guides decision making and adoption.

“It provides a gut check and allows us to understand what’s cost-effective and viable, and what we can support,” Slevin says. “It gives us a balanced perspective that spans the organization.”

Make no mistake, New York Life’s IT department drives strategic policy across the company. With an understanding of how separate but connected constituencies—customers, partners, agents and employees—interact, it’s able to devise solutions that best fit the needs of the business.

What’s more, the process is ongoing. The company is currently mapping out next-generation mobility solutions, social networking tools and expanded e-capabilities. “We’re looking to handle all forms, payments, self-service components and other transactions electronically,” Toffolo notes.

New York Life’s success is based, in large part, on IT’s ability to understand and deliver solutions that support business needs in the most efficient, cost-effective way possible. The IT department has adopted best practices in strategic governance, investment planning and system design. “The goal is to maximize results by making business data available and actionable 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Slevin says.


Company: New York Life Insurance Co.

Headquarters: New York

2008 Insurance Sales: $2.43 billion

2008 Investment Sales: $26.6 billion

Total Employees: 8,932 employees and more than 11,000 agents in the United States

IT Employees: 1,200

Business: Life insurance and financial products

Business Challenge: To build an IT framework that addresses governance, planning and strategic investments, as well as providing real-time data and information to partners, employees, agents and others

Key IT Projects: Web-based contact system launched in January 2009 that runs within a portal; Web-based new-business/underwriting system and a workflow management system

IT Infrastructure: Mainframes; Unix and Windows servers; proprietary applications; and enterprise systems from IBM, Navagate, Oracle and others

Read “Cisco: Collaboration Is Key to Business”.