Bringing Innovation to Insurance

 
 
By Eileen Feretic  |  Posted 2008-07-30
 
 
 

Insurance and innovation. They don’t seem to go together, do they? Yet, one insurance company is making major investments in innovative programs and initiatives designed to provide better service to customers, while continuing to expand its business around the world.

Founded in 1845, the New York Life Insurance Co. is the largest mutual life insurance company in the United States, with 15,000 employees and 50,000 agents worldwide. Despite its longevity, the New York-based firm is not mired in the past. The company’s executives encourage, support and fund creative endeavors in all aspects of the business, and advanced technology plays a key role in those efforts.

Eileen Slevin is at the center of technology innovation at New York Life. As chief information officer and head of the Corporate Information Department (CID), Slevin directs a staff of 1,300 IT professionals in six U.S. locations, providing technology services for the company’s customers, employees and agents.

In addition, Slevin has responsibility for two other strategic areas: Corporate Internet and Business Resilience. Corporate Internet develops and leads the implementation of the company’s Internet and intranet vision and strategy. Business Resilience is responsible for protecting employees, as well as company and customer assets, in the event of a disaster; minimizing the impact of a business disruption; and managing records in accordance with business, legal and regulatory requirements.


Check out "Developing IT and business partnerships"

 

“Because life insurance is such a mature industry, we spend quite a bit of time thinking about how we can bring innovation to our company,” Slevin says. “About six years ago, we created a program called New Horizons, which is specifically focused on innovation. We encourage our employees to formulate ideas for building new businesses—not just new products, but actual businesses. Quite a few creative ideas come out of that program every year.”

As an example, Slevin says the company has developed different kinds of insurance, such as Family Protection Insurance, which is a comprehensive family life insurance plan that covers both parents and dependent children in one simple term policy.

“Every year, we have a new version of the New Horizons program,” she says. “All the executive officers contribute what we consider to be the equivalent of venture capital, and we vote on the 10 to 15 employee and agent proposals that we think have the best chance of becoming profitable businesses. These proposals are presented to our Executive Management Committee, which consists of our senior executive leadership, and they make the final cut of two or three proposals, which are then funded.”

Supporting Agents

Some of the company’s other innovation efforts focus on information technology. New York Life has a dedicated agency workforce to sell its products, and they are provided with a tremendous amount of technology to help them run their business, according to Slevin. That technology includes a Web portal system developed exclusively for the agents.

The Web portal gives agents access to numerous applications that provide a wide range of information, such as ledger data, sales rankings, news and e-mail. Over time, more applications will be added.

“Last year, we added a collaboration platform, EMC’s eRoom Documentum product,” Slevin says. “We worked with EMC to build use cases and to make processes easier and more collaborative for our agents. They simply go into eRoom to access and send documents, conduct e-meetings and share business cases. Everything has an audit trail and is authenticated.”

Currently, New York Life is creating a Web-based contact and calendar system for its 10,000 U.S. agents, which is scheduled to be rolled out during the fall.

Though these efforts were developed for the U.S. workforce, Slevin says, “We are willing to give whatever technology we have in this country to our global agency workforce, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to get that ready for them.” The international group currently numbers more than 40,000 agents and is growing rapidly.

As an example of sharing technology across borders, Slevin cites the company’s development group in Reno, Nev., which creates Web software for agents so they can model illustrations for New York Life prospects and customers. (These illustrations help clients understand how an insurance policy works.) A version of that program is also available to the company’s international agents.

Working With Emerging Technologies

New York Life’s customers are certainly not neglected when it comes to technology innovation. In fact, the company recently introduced Web 2.0 functionality on newyorklife.com, enabling customers to provide feedback in real time and to rate individual articles on the site.

They also can use links to access the top social networking sites, and can bookmark and share information. Another new feature, Read This Page, allows site visitors who are visually impaired to click a button and hear Web content read out loud.

“We’ve gotten very positive feedback on the enhanced site,” Slevin says. “This functionality puts us in closer contact with our customers and prospects. It’s also a lead-generation site—both for new customers and to recruit agents.”

Although Web 2.0 does raise security concerns, that’s not a barrier for New York Life. “Security is obviously very important to us,” Slevin says. “Everything we do is put through a very stringent security review, and that applies to our Web site as well, so we’re confident that the site meets our security requirements.”

Another emerging technology trend that is getting a lot of attention from New York Life is social networking. “Social networking technology is very new, so we don’t have anything for our customers just yet,” Slevin says, “but we’re working on it. We have several pilots going on in social networking within our IT organization. I’ve asked an IT group to study this technology and put a proposal forward for the whole IT group—something that we could later adopt for the rest of the company.

“I know our internal customers are going to ask us about social networking very soon, and we want to be ready. But we need to use it ourselves before we give it to our customers. When we’re confident the technology is ready, we’ll roll out standards, document how it can be used, help customers figure out ways to use it productively and put some governance around it.”

Slevin is enthusiastic about social networking, saying it’s going to be the next big thing. “Social networking is already huge with the kids, but it’s also going to be huge as a business tool,” she predicts.

“We’re using it on a small scale with project teams, and we’re not seeing it as a productivity hit. We’re finding that it’s a productivity enhancer, because people don’t have to take time to make a phone call or write an e-mail. Real-time collaborative work is getting done, and that’s what we’re seeing right now in the project teams.”

The next steps, according to Slevin, are putting together compelling use cases and getting ready to work with the business units. “I think this technology is going to be groundbreaking,” she says. “I presented it to our CID management team and challenged them to come back with business-use cases, and they’re working on that right now.”

Slevin acknowledges that business use of social networking is in its infancy. “So far, no one has done a lot with social networking on an enterprise level,” she says, “but everyone sees what the kids are doing with this, and they know it’s just a matter of time before these young people join the workforce and want to use this technology at work.”

The changing workforce is raising another critical issue at New York Life. Like many other established enterprises, the company is still using 40-year-old technologies that aren’t going away anytime soon. The problem is that the people who run these systems are beginning to retire. To deal with this issue, New York Life created a program about five years ago to train employees on the older technologies.

Here again, Slevin is looking for a creative solution to this challenge. “I see social networking as a way to get information about our older technologies documented in this platform, so it will be there for all employees to use,” she explains. “This is one of the challenging business examples of social networking that I presented to the executive group.

“I’m sure there’s a way to take the knowledge our workers have gleaned over 40 years and document it, so we can pass it along to our trainees. A lot of industries are facing the same problem of impending retirements and older technologies that are not going away, but we want to stay on top of this issue.”

Another technology that’s getting a foothold at New York Life is Wi-Fi. The agents are asking for Wi-Fi, and the company is working with them to implement this technology in the common areas of agency offices.

“We also will look to use Wi-Fi when we do any major construction or renovation,” Slevin says. “Initially, we had security concerns about this technology, but they are becoming controllable, so we are now open to using Wi-Fi. It’s going to be a big thing for us down the road.”

The lagging economy that is slowing down technology investments at many enterprises is not affecting New York Life. “As a mutual company, our performance isn’t measured by the reporting requirements of quarterly results, so we can invest in the future,” Slevin says. “In fact, we’re investing in our infrastructure right now.

“We are going to be servicing our policyholders and doing the right things for our policyholders decades into the future. That’s at the core of who we are and what we believe in.”

“Doing the right things” for its policyholders requires innovative ideas, processes and technologies. “At New York Life, we are focused on using innovation to stay at the top of our industry,” says Slevin.