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February 13, 2017

Innovation: Not Just for the Big Firms

Summary:

In these disruptive times, small- to medium-sized insurers that want to remain relevant must -- and can -- heed the call of innovation.

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Small- to medium-sized insurers that want to remain relevant should heed the call of innovation.

There has been a lot of press lately about how innovation can help insurers overcome growth obstacles. It’s no secret that the insurtech startups of the world, for which digital innovation is the hallmark, are garnering the attention — and funding — of venture capitalists and larger carriers, but how is that innovation affecting small- to medium-sized (SMB) insurers?

In some ways, SMB insurers are vulnerable to a fate like what is being experienced by department stores such as Kmart and JC Penney or the local bookshop, all of which hang on by a thread as the online and big-box retailers take control of the market.

Market demographics contribute to this pressure, as emerging generations of customers — with demands for anytime, anywhere digital access to policy, claims and account information — put an additional burden on carriers.

It’s no wonder that SMB insurers may feel overwhelmed at the thought of keeping up with the likes of IoT, machine learning, business intelligence or robotic process automation. But many SMB insurers assume (incorrectly) that they don’t have the resources necessary to climb aboard the innovation train.

See also: Top 10 Insurtech Trends for 2017  

Consider the business culture in which SMB insurers (small mutual insurers, commercial workers’ comp carriers, municipal risk pools, captives and self-insured groups) operate. These carriers work within a known and predictable entity where budgets are firm — often the result of a formalized, collective group mandate. Smaller self-insured pools — such as public entities, under the scrutiny of their not-for-profit, state-controlled state insurance departments — are also frequently held to a more stringent set of business performance and accounting standards and metrics.

But, like their larger counterparts across all lines of business, these smaller self-insured pools are expected to be efficient, productive and successful in every aspect of their operations, including core systems (underwriting, billing, claims), financial management and CRM/workflow.

Unique Challenges

Because of the financial and cultural boundaries under which they operate, many of these insurers — as well as many other types of small insurers — still must rely on Microsoft Office products or cobbled-together, aging, home-grown legacy solutions to support day-to-day business functions.

This may mean that a single technology solution provider (or perhaps the insurer’s own, in-house IT staff) is responsible for the health and well-being of the organization’s technology footprint, architecture, back/front office, distribution, networking, communications and security. And, lately, those that rely on outside help for their IT function are faced with confusion and potential service delays as the surge in vendor merger and acquisition results in their trusted partner being gobbled up by a technology behemoth. The service-level agreement (SLA) may remain intact, but the larger vendor will undoubtedly start pressuring the carrier to rethink outdated hardware and software. This pressure, along with the potential drop in personalized service that typically accompanies a large M&A deal, add to the SMB insurers’ challenges to remain competitive.

In addition, the talent pipeline is drying up because of a retiring workforce. To replace these workers, what’s the likelihood that SMB insurers will be able to recruit top technology talent to manage an outdated AS/400 linked to a client/server front end?

If it sounds like I’m insinuating that smaller insurers should assume a victim mentality, that’s not the case. These carriers play a critical role in risk management, so they need to remain relevant.

But these SMB insurers will not be able to overcome innovation-related growth obstacles until they better understand and embrace affordable technology innovation options that will make their jobs a lot easier.

The first step is gaining an understanding of what’s possible — such as an affordable pay-as-you-go, as-needed migration of core systems and data to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) hosted environment, a gradual sunsetting of existing hardware and the gradual move to a digital platform that pulls all necessary functionality together for reliable, secure, front- and back-end operations.

From there, SMB insurers can implement predictive analytics for use in claims, communications and even cross-selling. Even at a small scale, machine learning and artificial intelligence can help these carriers improve their claims function, customer service capabilities and more.

See also: 4 Hot Spots for Innovation in Insurance  

Risk-management changes within our marketplace — such as legislative issues, changing (read: younger) demographics, the advent of the sharing economy and the growing presence of disrupters — will affect all lines of business and all sizes of insurers.

The SMB insurers that will remain relevant will be those that hear the wake-up call and understand the path to innovation, that choose a stepped approach to business and technology relevance and that greet the future with an openness to what’s possible.

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About the Author

Jim Leftwich has more than 30 years of leadership experience in risk management and insurance. In 2010, he founded CHSI Technologies, which offers SaaS enterprise management software for small insurance operations and government risk pools.

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