October 20, 2015
A Word With Shefi: Boobier at IBM
IBM's insurance analytics executive says big data can identify correlations that will even help us identify the dreaded "unknown unknowns."
This is part of a series of interviews by Shefi Ben Hutta with insurance practitioners who bring an interesting perspective to their work and to the industry as a whole. Here, she speaks with Tony Boobier, the insurance analytics executive for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at IBM, who says, among other things, that he lies awake nights thinking about cognitive analytics and who believes big data can even help identify “unknown unknowns.”
Describe what you do in 50 words or less:
My day job is thinking about insurance analytics on a global basis, especially in the emerging markets. At the moment, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about our business partners, and how they need to transform to become more digital.
You possess a unique combination of qualifications in engineering, insurance and marketing. Do explain:
I originally qualified as a structural engineer but was more interested in why things fell down, which led me to insurance, and my engineering training helped me look at matters including processes forensically. My team collected data in a department nicknamed “The Engine Room,” as even then, 15 years ago, we realized that the insights we were getting could “drive” the insurance business forward. Being able to effectively explain and implement change was also a critical success factor, which took me toward marketing, which is the profession of communication. Fortunately, all three UK professional institutions have awarded me fellowships, which is their highest honor.
You’ve once said, “I lie awake at night thinking about the convergence between insurance and technology.” What emerging technology are you most excited about?
It’s tricky just to think of one technology, as they are all increasingly converging. The one that most excites me is of course cognitive analytics — but there are lots of other cool things happening in the disruptive technology space. With insurance being heavily dependent on the topic of location, one of my favorites at the moment is what3words.com — a company in the location analytics space. I am also particularly interested in behavioral analytics — why we behave the way we do, and what does it mean for business.
Name a carrier you highly value for its innovative culture:
I’d prefer not to name a single carrier — but is innovation in insurance such a big deal? It’s not like we are astro-geeks discovering a new planet or something. Isn’t it as much about looking outside the insurance industry for new ideas and then taking them into our own business world? Our industry is full of innovative individuals who step out of their comfort zones and do new things, and companies that let them. By the way, IE falls into the innovation category, and that’s why I’ve always been a fan.
You’ve recently published an article on “The Unknowns of the Tianjin Disaster,” where you question whether analytics can give insight into the “unknown unknowns.” Can big data solve big problems? Or is big data best left for those who need a reminder on how often they should brush their teeth (think: Beam Dental)?
Oh, Shefi, I think you’re teasing me! But seriously, overall I think that analytics can reveal “unknown unknowns” by identifying correlations that we hadn’t previously detected and that aren’t apparent using traditional methods. These correlations will give us new insight, which we hadn’t really thought about, and that won’t be a bad thing. It will make us think differently about the world and our industry. If our teeth remain healthy as a by-product, well, probably that’s not a bad thing either.
When you are not working, you are most likely…
I love the arts, in all its forms, and especially to read, write or just think about writing. Last weekend we saw “Bacharach Revisited,” which is a rework of Burt’s greatest songbook. Reminded me that even with the rapid changes happening around us, some of the more experienced guys have still got the best tunes if we choose to listen to them. Take time out to read Tom Peters on “Re-Imagine!” — as fresh as the day it was published in 2003.
You are one of IE’s earliest fans. Which other website do you visit to complement your entertaining insurance tidbits?
Like most of us, I’m bombarded with information. We have a very effective internal company insurance community with 12,600 subscribers, which is active and shares all the relevant market news; it’s a bit like sharing news across the insurance village. But you know, Shefi, that I only have IE’s for you!
Note: Boobier is writing on a personal basis. Opinions are of the interviewee and not of IE.