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Designing a Digital Insurance Ecosystem

Insurance carriers that invest in open ecosystems and best-in-class components will experience improved customer satisfaction, lower costs and leapfrog the competition.

In 2020, the insurance industry experienced several years of digital transformation in a few months. The days of monolithic legacy systems, built and maintained in-house for decades, are coming to an end as the market rewards dynamic carriers that leverage application programming interfaces (APIs), microservices and web services to build ecosystems that offer the right experience, to the right people, on the right platform.

What is a digital ecosystem?

A digital ecosystem describes a loose network of connected applications and technologies that act cohesively to meet business objectives. Inspired by ecosystems found in nature, digital ecosystems are characterized by principles of openness, flexibility and self-organization. APIs, web services and microservices often work together to form the framework of a digital ecosystem.

Uber, for example, maintains an ecosystem of over 2,200 microservices. This architecture enables greater flexibility and autonomy, allowing teams to innovate rapidly and swap out specific services without compromising the entire system.

Unlike open ecosystems, closed systems (also known as “walled garden” systems) are typically built and maintained in-house. An example of a closed system is Apple’s iOS operating system, where apps can only be downloaded from Apple’s App Store.

The insurance industry’s next big frontier

According to research firm Novarica, the trend toward digital ecosystems in insurance is powerful, with more than 65% of insurers having deployed APIs/microservices as of Q4 2019. A couple of years ago, insurtech Lemonade made headlines by launching its public API, allowing anyone to offer Lemonade policies through different apps or websites. According to research from Accenture, 84% of insurance executives say ecosystems are important to their strategy. Ecosystems are the insurance industry’s next big frontier for disruption.

For insurers, a digital ecosystem can encompass the entire customer journey, from quote to claim. This frequently involves touchpoints with several applications such as CRMs, policy administration systems, broker portals and third-party data service providers. This barely scratches the surface. For insurers, however, there remains an understandable hesitancy toward adopting open ecosystems.

While carriers acknowledge the importance of adopting innovative new technologies, many find themselves tied to closed systems that struggle to “talk” to new applications. This may result in missed opportunities, declining market share and unhappy customers while rewarding competitors that offer greater flexibility. What monolithic legacy systems do provide, however, is control: governance, security, predictability and change management. These are important concerns in an industry known for its heavy regulation.

For many CIOs, managing a cornucopia of different technologies within a digital ecosystem can seem a tough pill to swallow given security and governance concerns. However, with rapidly evolving customer expectations and a drastic increase in the overall rate of change, greater flexibility is now a must.

A recent survey of European insurers conducted by DXC Technology found that 22% of insurers were already part of an ecosystem providing additional services to their customers, and a further 46% had plans of joining an ecosystem soon. The evidence is clear that the industry is shifting toward greater openness and agility, and insurers must be prepared to commit to the new paradigm.

See also: Big Opportunities in Insurance Ecosystems

Three ways insurance ecosystems drive competitive advantage

1. Optimize Customer Experience

Traditionally, customers had greater loyalty to particular brands, and there were relatively few touchpoints in advance of sales and renewals. Today, customer relationships are more fluid as pricing and plan comparisons have become more transparent, and the customer journey frequently involves several touchpoints across different channels both before and after a policy is sold.

Digital ecosystems enable insurers to optimize the customer experience by increasing the number of touchpoints with customers and by providing new services. Lemonade’s open API is one example, but there are many other opportunities that insurers are seizing to meet modern expectations and grab growth opportunities:

  • Chatbots and conversational marketing technologies
  • Life insurance applications for managing personal health
  • Virtual healthcare delivery
  • Partnerships with other businesses to earn digital loyalty points
  • Connected smart home and vehicle-safety solutions
  • Extensions to manufacturers’ warranties as part of an integrated e-commerce experience
  • Advice and estimates provided to customers using voice technology

Insurers that are late to develop their ecosystems will likely lose market share to competitors and disruptors that deliver engaging new experiences.

2. “Componentization” of insurance ecosystems boosts agility and innovation

Open ecosystems that combine discrete components enable insurers to reduce costs and improve agility and system reliability while supporting innovation.

Flexibility is enabled by modularity: the ability to continuously swap out components based on evolving business needs. Similarly, if a single service goes down, it can be replaced without jeopardizing other components.

“Componentization” also forces IT planners to clearly define the roles of different components. This clarifies ownership and makes it easier to identify bottlenecks and efficiencies, improving the quality of services and reducing the overall IT spending.

At Global IQX, we built a componentized platform from the ground up. Our platform enables carriers in the group and voluntary benefits business to select specific components that fit within their digital strategies while integrating with their existing CRM, PAS and other applications. Whether insurers decide to build upon IQX or another platform, the principles of flexibility and componentization must reign supreme.

In the context of digital ecosystems, CIOs and CTOs are curators. Their role is to constantly evaluate and select best-in-class components for each function of the ecosystem within an established governance model. In the digital ecosystem economy, there is also a greater emphasis on maintaining and scaling partnerships with external vendors and data-service providers to remain at the forefront of innovation.

3. Securing Data Dominance

Big data analytics is changing the game in the insurance industry. More data is produced than ever before, providing ample opportunities for insurers. For example, auto insurers are now leveraging the four terabytes of data produced by connected cars each day to provide more personalized experiences to their customers. Similarly, life and health insurers are leveraging connected data from wearables that track thousands of data points such as an insured’s heart rate and sleep patterns.

To achieve data dominance, insurers must build and scale big data ecosystems. These can include analytics platforms, data visualization platforms, business intelligence platforms, artificial intelligence tools and Internet of Things (IoT) technology such as wearables and smart home devices. Global IQX, for example, includes the option for employees to connect their FitBits during enrolment to receive applicable discounts.

Most carriers already have vast amounts of data. New technologies can be leveraged to better visualize data sets and to suggest optimal benefits plan design based on past success factors. When data-protection and privacy laws pose challenges to personalization, artificial intelligence tools can be used to produce synthetic data that does not expose customer information.

Carriers that can most effectively leverage big data will be able to deliver more personalized customer experiences, increase customer retention, cut costs and produce more accurate quotes, faster.

Insurance ecosystems: Seize the opportunity for differentiation

Ecosystems might be the single greatest opportunity for insurers to differentiate themselves in a period of rapid digital transformation. Indeed, according to 2019 research from Accenture, only 5% of insurers can be considered “ecosystem masters.”

See also: Ecosystem-Based Business Models

While the benefits are clear, it is not always easy to develop and scale a digital ecosystem business model. There will be organizational, cultural and technical challenges along the way. Once you establish the foundational platform and define parameters you’ll have the opportunity to improve your service offerings, increase customer loyalty and drive growth in a competitive landscape.

Moving Beyond ‘Greed Is Good’

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s defining essay on the role of the corporation, which concluded that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

That conclusion has been taken to such extremes — think, “Greed is good,” the signature line from the movie “Wall Street” — that a backlash has been developing. I think the insurance industry can support what might be thought of as a “beyond greed” movement, and even ride it. Doing so would help our public image, while benefiting the customer and — dare I say it? — perhaps even increasing industry profits.

Now, there’s lots of power to Friedman’s argument. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have guided business for so long. Businesses need to generate profits to keep investing and improving in ways that benefit us, the customers — think of all the things that Amazon has been able to deliver cheaply and quickly to you since the start of the pandemic because of Jeff Bezos’ ferocious investments in his business. (Who knew I even needed eight sets of chopsticks, an air fryer and 63 plants?) Profits also provide feedback that help businesses get better at serving us. If a company is generating lots of earnings, the market is telling the company that it’s doing well. If not, the company needs to try something different.

My old friend Andy Kessler notes in a column in the Wall Street Journal this week that Friedman specified that a company focusing solely on profits must “stay within the rules of the game, which is to say, engage in open and free competition without deception fraud.” Andy says that, within the right structure, Friedman’s focus on profits produces huge benefits for society.

But cracks have been appearing in that structure. For instance, tobacco companies lied for decades about the dangers of smoking, and oil and gas companies likewise hid what they knew about greenhouse gases and climate change. Profits thrived. But did the companies show social responsibility? Not so much.

More recently, social tensions have heightened about income inequality, which can be traced in part to the laser focus on profits. That focus has certainly pushed the upper end of corporate pay far higher by creating a vicious circle (a virtuous circle if you’re one of the senior executives benefiting). The circle looks something like this:

To encourage the CEO to drive profits and nothing but profits, his or her pay is tied to the stock price — boost earnings, giving the stock price a kick, and you win big. CEOs are then evaluated against a peer group and are slotted into a quartile. They are paid like others in that grouping. Sounds fair enough, right? But who wants to tell the CEO that he or she is below average? In fact, in the chumminess of the board room, CEOs are almost all stars. That means they are paid above average — which raises the average, again and again and again, for each annual review cycle. Add in the potential for big gains on stock options, and the system looks increasingly unfair to anyone not fortunate enough to be at the high (and always getting higher) end of the scale.

Meanwhile, wages have been stagnant in the lower ranks of businesses. In the past, gains from productivity tended to be shared with workers, in the form of higher wages. In recent decades, almost all the gains have been captured by companies feeling pressure to produce maximum profits.

With the sense building that the pursuit of profits and nothing but profits has taken us too far to the greed end of the scale, the Business Roundtable released a statement in August 2019 signed by 181 CEOs “who commit to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.”

Such an approach, known as “stakeholder capitalism,” turns out to be easier to articulate than to execute. For instance, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, who was one of the champions of the Business Roundtable statement, declared a “victory for stakeholder capitalism” in late August when he reported quarterly sales exceeding $5 billion — then announced the next day that he was cutting 1,000 jobs. He argued that the cuts weren’t inconsistent with a pledge to benefit all stakeholders, but the 1,000 people losing their jobs surely felt differently.

A study looking at all the companies whose CEOs signed the “stakeholder capitalism” statement found, a year later, that they hadn’t followed through. I’m not especially surprised. You may value your employees greatly, but, if you’re Walmart, you’re not going to suddenly start paying clerks $15 or $20 an hour unless you know that your competitors will, too. Otherwise, you’d cede an advantage to them. So, I don’t think much will change until there is some kind of public pledge by all companies to do a series of very specific things for employees, communities, etc. or until government mandates something such as an increase in the minimum wage.

But the sentiment is there. There is a movement afoot to get businesses to look beyond profits and focus on broader issues, and it sounds to me a lot like what insurance is all about: We’re here to help clients reduce their risks and to recover quickly when the inevitable losses occur. We don’t sell widgets; we help people in their time of need. Who better to lead a “beyond greed” approach to business?

Back in the early days of the personal computer, when I was covering technology for the Wall Street Journal, the CEO of a successful software company told me his strategy consisted of trying to spot a parade. He didn’t have to organize the parade. He just had to put on a drum major costume, jump in front of it and lead it somewhere.

The more-than-profits movement seems like a parade that could — or even should — be led by insurers.

My suggestion would be less “stakeholder capitalism” as the starting point and more Peter Drucker. Drucker, the management guru whom I had the privilege of interviewing twice, began with the customer. Rather than the diffuse focus of “stakeholder capitalism” or the harsh emphasis on profits that Friedman advocated, Drucker argued that “the purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”

That focus on the customer not only fits the historic ethos of the industry but seems to be where we’re heading. I’ve never seen an industry talk so much about the customer experience or the customer journey. And I’ve started to see the industry’s focus shift to what customers really want: to avoid losses, rather than to be reimbursed after they occur. Just in the past couple of weeks, Travelers announced that it was using artificial intelligence to help clients survey their workplaces and spot ergonomic issues that could cause injuries, and CSAA announced a pilot program to provide fire retardant that Californians can spray on brush surrounding their homes as a wildfire approaches. The list could go on.

Focusing on the customer could lead as far as insurers wanted to go into the “stakeholder capitalism” movement, with its emphasis on communities, employees and suppliers, as well as customers and shareholders. After all, clients live in communities that would welcome fewer car accidents, a reduction in home invasions and theft and other benefits that insurers could facilitate. Insurers will invest in employees and relations with suppliers as part of caring for customers. And if Drucker was right — he almost always was — focusing on creating and keeping a customer will make the profits flow, keeping those shareholders happy.

In fact, I’d argue that the industry is at a point where attaching to the hip of the customer could lead in all sorts of interesting directions and new revenue streams. Why just focus on serving a client after a car accident? Why not begin the relationship way upstream, installing a camera that watches both the road and the driver and uses AI to make sure the driver is paying attention as he heads into a known danger spot like a blind intersection? Why not continue the relationship way downstream, helping a client run errands via Uber or Lyft while waiting for a car to be repaired?

When I hear complaints about capitalism, I think of the line concerning democracy that is generally attributed to Winston Churchill, that “democracy is the worst system of government — except for all the others.” I’d agree that capitalism is the worst economic system — except for all the others. Capitalism, while messy, drives an extraordinary amount of innovation and has been the engine driving the progress of civilization for centuries now.

But maybe it can be a little better. And maybe the insurance industry can help lead the way.

Stay safe.

Paul

P.S. Here are the six articles I’d like to highlight from the past week:

A New Boom for Life Insurance?

Life insurance can move past the 250-year-old, risk-focused transaction and become a core component within a life, wealth and health ecosystem.

Keys to Limiting Litigation Liability

Risks associated with GL and AU claims can be managed, even with “social inflation,” “nuclear verdicts” and tough jurisdictions.

How Analytics Can Tame ‘Social Inflation’

Claims data within insurance companies is being increasingly seen as a key asset, not a byproduct of the claims process.

P&C Insurers Shift Course in Pandemic

In 2021, there looks to be a major increase in overall tech spending and a rapid acceleration of digital transformation plans.

Insurtechs’ Role in Transformation

Insurtechs are important for the development of the industry — but as tools. Incumbents must still get the real transformation done.

State of Diversity, Inclusion in Insurance

Organizations that adhere to a rigid hierarchy throw up roadblocks to diversity & inclusion due to preconceived notions.

Time to Retire the Term ‘Insurtech’?

When I founded and edited what became known as a “new economy” magazine in 1997, to explore all the strategic possibilities created by the internet, a friend told me a curious thing.

“You know,” he said, “there were magazines with names like Popular Electricity back in the early 1900s, when it was this great new thing. Then electricity just became part of daily life, and the magazines went away.”

Sure enough, after half a dozen fine years, my magazine, Context, faded away, as did all the similar publications, including Business 2.0 and the Industry Standard, which once were so thick with ads that they looked like phone books.

It may now be time to start retiring the term “insurtech,” too.

It’s not that technology is no longer a key driver for the insurance industry. Far from it. In fact, the pace of innovation has been picking up for years as companies have become more knowledgeable about the possibilities of various technologies, about how to incorporate them and about how to innovate, in general. Now, COVID-19 is making the industry step on the accelerator because so many interactions must happen virtually.

The issue is that technology is now so ubiquitous that it’s time to stop treating it as this new, alien thing. Yes, the many technologies now at the industry’s disposal — blockchain, the various flavors of artificial intelligence, etc. — are wildly complex. But so is the laptop or phone you’re using to read this right now, yet you treat your device as a tool, a simple extension of your hand or your brain. It’s time to start thinking of insurance technology — not insurtech — the same way.

We’re solving business problems, not technology problems, as we innovate within our organizations. We want to have the most efficient operations, the smartest underwriting, the fastest and smoothest claims processes for clients. Technology will play a role almost everywhere, often a key role, but the goal isn’t simply to have the best AI or the coolest blockchain application.

The industry has been migrating toward a more balanced view of technology and innovation. You see that, for instance, as companies try to rethink the customer journey, where the focus is squarely on the customer and where technology facilitates much of what happens, but in the background.

Some technologies will still require great attention, in and of themselves. Something like blockchain, for instance, could provide a competitive advantage if you figure it out before your competitors, or it could be an expensive bust for you, so you need to develop a deep understanding of the technology. But even with something like blockchain, you’re starting with that business problem you’re trying to solve.

I suspect the term “insurtech” will play out rather as “digital strategy” did at the consulting firm that published my magazine.

When the late, great Mel Bergstein founded Diamond Management & Technology Consultants in 1994, he had the then-radical idea that digital technology could drive corporate strategy, rather than just be an afterthought. The firm did a lot to popularize that concept, especially when one of our partners, Chunka Mui, co-wrote a best-seller in 1998, “Unleashing the Killer App,” whose subtitle was “Digital Strategies for Market Dominance.”

The notion of digital strategy stayed popular through 2010 or so, I’d say, and plenty of consulting firms will still sell you one, but every strategy has a digital piece to it these days. Try to imagine a strategy that isn’t digital. So, “digital strategy” has gradually become “strategy.”

Likewise, while a few people still talk about “e-commerce,” it mostly has a simpler name: “commerce.” Amazon was treated as a technology company for the longest time even though it sold books. Now, it’s treated as what it is: a retailer (that’s extraordinarily sophisticated in its use of technology) and a provider of technology services through its AWS cloud business.

“Insurtech” hasn’t been around nearly as long as “digital strategy” or “e-commerce,” and the combination of insurance and technology in innovative ways will only pick up speed from here. But the innovation needs to happen as part of, well, the normal innovation process and not as a sort of excursion into foreign territory. So, I think “insurtech” will soon enough be referred to by a different name: “insurance.”

15 Hurdles to Scaling for Driverless Cars

Will the future of driverless cars rhyme with the history of the Segway? The Segway personal transporter was also predicted to revolutionize transportation. Steve Jobs gushed that cities would be redesigned around the device. John Doerr said it would be bigger than the internet. The Segway worked technically but never lived up to its backers’ outsized hopes for market impact. Instead, the Segway was relegated to narrow market niches, like ferrying security guards, warehouse workers and sightseeing tours.

One could well imagine such a fate for driverless cars (a.k.a. AVs, for autonomous vehicles). The technology could work brilliantly and yet get relegated to narrow market niches, like predefined shuttle routes and slow-moving delivery drones.  Some narrow applications, like interstate highway portions of long-haul trucking, could be extremely valuable but nowhere near the atmospheric potential imagined by many—include me, as I described, for example, in “Google’s Driverless Car Is Worth Trillions.”

For AVs to revolutionize transportation, they must reach a high level of industrialization and adoption. They must enable, as a first step, robust, relatively inexpensive Uber-like services in urban and suburban areas. (The industry is coalescing around calling these types of services “transportation as a service,” or TaaS.) In the longer term, AVs must be robust enough to allow for personal ownership and challenge the pervasiveness of personally owned, human-driven cars.

See also: Where Are Driverless Cars Taking Industry?  

This disruptive potential (and therefore enormous value) is motivating hundreds of companies around the world, including some of the biggest and wealthiest, such as Alphabet, Apple, General Motors, Ford, Toyota and SoftBank, to invest many billions of dollars into developing AVs. The work is progressing, with some companies (and regulators) believing that their AVs are “good enough” for pilot testing of commercial AV TaaS services with real customers on public roads in multiple markets, including SingaporePhoenix and Quangzhou.

Will AVs turn out to be revolutionary? What factors might cause them to go the way of the Segway—and derail the hopes (and enormous investments) of those chasing after the bigger prize?

Getting AVs to work well enough is, of course, a non-negotiable prerequisite for future success. It is absolutely necessary but far from sufficient.

In this three-part series, I look beyond the questions of technical feasibility to explore other significant hurdles to the industrialization of AVs. These hurdles fall into four categories: scaling, trust, market viability and secondary effects.

Scaling. Building and proving an AV is a big first step. Scaling it into a fleet-based TaaS business operation is an even bigger step. Here are seven giant hurdles to industrialization related to scaling:

  1. Mass production
  2. Electric charging infrastructure
  3. Mapping
  4. Fleet management and operations
  5. Customer service and experience
  6. Security
  7. Rapid localization

Trust. It is not enough for developers and manufacturers to believe their AVs are good enough for widespread use, they must convince others. To do so, they must overcome three huge hurdles.

  1. Independent verification and validation
  2. Standardization and regulation
  3. Public acceptance

Market Viability. The next three hurdles deal with whether AV-enabled business models work in the short term and the long term, both in beating the competition and other opponents.

  1. Business viability
  2. Stakeholder resistance
  3. Private ownership

See also: Suddenly, Driverless Cars Hit Bumps  

Secondary Effects. We shape our AVs, and afterward our AVs reshape us, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. There will be much to love about the successful industrialization of driverless cars. But, as always is the case with large technology change, there could be huge negative secondary effects. Several possible negative consequences are already foreseeable and raising concern. They represent significant hurdles to industrialization unless successfully anticipated and ameliorated.

  1. Congestion
  2. Job loss

I’ll sketch out these hurdles in two more parts to come.

It’s Time to End Appeals Based on Fear

Consumer attitudes toward the insurance industry are changing faster than ever. Millennials make up the most populous generation today, and with many of them entering their mid- and late thirties, they are shopping for insurance in higher numbers. This tech-savvy generation expects personalized services and demands greater control over their experiences and decisions. Millennial consumers are calling the shots in almost every B2C industry – and insurance is no exception.

The insurance industry traditionally relied on the fear of the unknown as its most powerful sales enabler, but with millennials making decisions based on brand experience, insurers need to turn to emerging technologies to transform and customize the way they reach customers. The status quo is simply unsustainable if they want growth. Forward-looking insurers know that the key to attracting and retaining clients is to leverage predictive technology and provide them with the seamless, smart, digital-first experience they need.

But for this future to become a reality, companies need to implement and use predictive analytics in a way that truly enhances the customer experience. Here are the steps every insurer needs to know before embarking on that journey:

Collect the Right – Not the Most – Data

Knowing the ins and outs of customer needs and behaviors is essential in operating an insurance business, but it is not enough to know the general needs of a customer base. In fact, the majority of consumers are willing to share personal information in exchange for added benefits like enhanced risk protection, risk avoidance or bundled pricing. To deliver personalized service, insurers must collect data at the individual level – and quantity does not always mean quality. The accuracy of predictive analytics relies on the certainty and relevancy of the data those systems are fed. Before doing anything else, insurers must determine exactly what information drives business decisions and collect that data on both individual and grand scale as efficiently as possible.

See also: 3 Ways to Optimize Predictive Analytics  

This is where the Internet of Things (IoT) steps in. As one of the most ground-breaking technologies on the market today, IoT has only just begun to realize its potential in the insurance industry. IoT sensors attached to infrastructure, cars, homes and other insurable items, can feed real-time data back to providers with unprecedented accuracy. Not only does this live feed of data prevent emergencies by identifying potential problems before they arise, the highly precise information acts as a foundation for analytics at a customer-specific level in the next phase of the process.

Get Personal With Predictions

Once insurers are collecting relevant, accurate and individualized data, the next step on the road to customer satisfaction is applying machine learning and AI to that information. The outcomes of this analysis not only determine truths about the current status of an asset or situation but reveal patterns that enable insurance companies to predict what is in store down the road. For an insurer, this predictive knowledge means more accurately being able to evaluate, price and plan for risk – whether evaluating individual portfolios or aggregating data to foresee larger trends in the marketplace.

But as predictive technology becomes more mainstream, the true value of digital foresight will be its ability to offer the millennial customers the deep personalization and hyper-relevance they crave and expect from all their services. By transforming the industry into a predictive and even preventative experience, insurance companies are changing the status quo of fear-based customer relationships and instead leverage technology to make insurance feel tailored and assuring.

Engage With Emerging Technology

The insurance industry is not and never will be based on static, one-time decisions. As risk is calculated on various constantly changing variables, it is essential to continue evolving customer predictions, recommendations and prices based on incoming information. Analyzing both existing and new data from IoT sensors allows companies to pivot strategies in the face of new predictions, enhance underwriting, reduce claim ratio and remain agile to meet the needs of their customers today and tomorrow.

See also: What Comes After Predictive Analytics  

Just as predictions do not stand still, neither should an insurance company’s methods for determining them. In an era of hyper customer relevance, with disruptive players like Uber, Venmo and Mint, millennials have come to expect services that are not only predictive but get deeply personalized in accuracy and usability overtime. The insurance industry has traditionally lagged behind other B2C industries in terms of adoption, however, due to its changing customer base it will have no other choice than to evolve rapidly over the next few years. Placing emerging technologies like AI, machine learning, automation and IoT at the core of business operations now will be key in setting insurance up for continued progression in the future.

Appealing to the new generation of insurance customer is all about offering tailored experiences that cater to their needs and expectations. The insurance industry is in for an acceleration of change to accommodate their new millennial consumer – a change fueled by technology that creates bonds of loyalty and trust via personalization, not fear.