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What Is and What Isn’t a Blockchain?

I Block, Therefore I Chain?

What is, and what isn’t, a “blockchain”?  The Bitcoin cryptocurrency uses a data structure that I have often termed as part of a class of “mutual distributed ledgers.” Let me set out the terms as I understand them:

  • ledger – a record of transactions;
  • distributed – divided among several or many, in multiple locations;
  • mutual – shared in common, or owned by a community;
  • mutual distributed ledger (MDL) – a  record of transactions shared in common and stored in multiple locations;
  • mutual distributed ledger technology – a technology that provides an immutable record of transactions shared in common and stored in multiple locations.

Interestingly, the 2008 Satoshi Nakamoto paper that preceded the Jan. 1, 2009, launch of the Bitcoin protocol does not use the term “blockchain” or “block chain.” It does refer to “blocks.” It does refer to “chains.” It does refer to “blocks” being “chained” and also a “proof-of-work chain.” The paper’s conclusion echoes a MDL – “we proposed a peer-to-peer network using proof-of-work to record a public history of transactions that quickly becomes computationally impractical for an attacker to change if honest nodes control a majority of CPU power.” [Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, bitcoin.org (2008)]

I have been unable to find the person who coined the term “block chain” or “blockchain.” [Contributions welcome!] The term “blockchain” only makes it into Google Trends in March 2012, more than three years from the launch of the Bitcoin protocol.

Blockchain

And the tide may be turning. In July 2015, the States of Jersey issued a consultation document on regulation of virtual currencies and referred to “distributed ledger technology.” In January 2016, the U.K. Government Office of Science fixed on “distributed ledger technology,” as does the Financial Conduct Authority and the Bank of England. Etymological evolution is not over.

Ledger Challenge

Wuz we first? Back in 1995, our firm, Z/Yen, faced a technical problem. We were building a highly secure case management system that would be used in the field by case officers on personal computers. Case officers would enter confidential details on the development and progress of their work. We needed to run a large concurrent database over numerous machines. We could not count on case officers out on the road dialing in or using Internet connections. Given the highly sensitive nature of the cases, security was paramount, and we couldn’t even trust the case officers overly much, so a full audit trail was required.

We took advantage of our clients’ “four eyes” policy. Case officers worked on all cases together with someone else, and not on all cases with the same person. Case officers had to jointly agree on a final version of a case file. We could count on them (mostly) running into sufficient other case officers over a reasonable period and using their encounters to transmit data on all cases. So we built a decentralized system where every computer had a copy of everything, but encrypted so case officers could only view their own work, oblivious to the many other records on their machines. When case officers met each other, their machines would “openly” swap their joint files over a cable or floppy disk but “confidentially” swap everyone else’s encrypted files behind the scenes, too. Even back at headquarters, four servers treated each other as peers rather than having a master central database. If a case officer failed to “bump into” enough people, then he or she would be called and asked to dial in or meet someone or drop by headquarters to synchronize.  This was, in practice, rarely required.

We called these decentralized chains “data stacks.” We encrypted all of the files on the machines, permitting case officers to share keys only for their shared cases. We encrypted a hash of every record within each subsequent record, a process we called “sleeving.” We wound up with a highly successful system that had a continuous chain of sequentially encrypted records across multiple machines treating each other as peers. We had some problems with synchronizing a concurrent database, but they were surmounted.

Around the time of our work, there were other attempts to do similar highly secure distributed transaction databases, e.g. Ian Griggs and Ricardo on payments, Stanford University and LOCKSS and CLOCKSS for academic archiving. Some people might point out that we weren’t probably truly peer-to-peer, reserving that accolade for Gnutella in 2000. Whatever. We may have been bright, perhaps even first, but were not alone.

Good or Bad Databases?

In a strict sense, MDLs are bad databases. They wastefully store information about every single alteration or addition and never delete.

In another sense, MDLs are great databases. In a world of connectivity and cheap storage, it can be a good engineering choice to record everything “forever.” MDLs make great central databases, logically central but physically distributed. This means that they eliminate a lot of messaging. Rather than sending you a file to edit, which you edit, sending back a copy to me, then sending a further copy on to someone else for more processing, all of us can access a central copy with a full audit trail of all changes. The more people involved in the messaging, the more mutual the participation, the more efficient this approach becomes.

Trillions of Choices

Perhaps the most significant announcement of 2015 was in January from IBM and Samsung. They announced their intention to work together on mutual distributed ledgers (aka blockchain technology) for the Internet-of Things. ADEPT (Autonomous Decentralized Peer-to-Peer Telemetry) is a jointly developed system for distributed networks of devices.

In summer 2015, a North American energy insurer raised an interesting problem with us. It was looking at insuring U.S. energy companies about to offer reduced electricity rates to clients that allowed them to turn appliances on and off — for example, a freezer. Now, freezers in America can hold substantial and valuable quantities of foodstuffs, often several thousand dollars. Obviously, the insurer was worried about correctly pricing a policy for the electricity firm in case there was some enormous cyber-attack or network disturbance.

Imagine coming home to find your freezer off and several thousands of dollars of thawed mush inside. You ring your home and contents insurer, which notes that you have one of those new-fangled electricity contracts: The fault probably lies with the electricity company; go claim from them. You ring the electricity company. In a fit of customer service, the company denies having anything to do with turning off your freezer; if anything, it was probably the freezer manufacturer that is at fault. The freezer manufacturer knows for a fact that there is nothing wrong except that you and the electricity company must have installed things improperly. Of course, the other parties think, you may not be all you seem to be. Perhaps you unplugged the freezer to vacuum your house and forgot to reconnect things. Perhaps you were a bit tight on funds and thought you could turn your frozen food into “liquid assets.”

I believe IBM and Samsung foresee, correctly, 10 billion people with hundreds of ledgers each, a trillion distributed ledgers. My freezer-electricity-control-ledger, my entertainment system, home security system, heating-and-cooling systems, telephone, autonomous automobile, local area network, etc. In the future, machines will make decisions and send buy-and-sell signals to each other that have large financial consequences. Somewhat coyly, we pointed out to our North American insurer that it should perhaps be telling the electricity company which freezers to shut off first, starting with the ones with low-value contents.

A trillion or so ledgers will not run through a single one. The idea behind cryptocurrencies is “permissionless” participation — any of the billions of people on the planet can participate. Another way of looking at this is that all of the billions of people on the planet are “permissioned” to participate in the Bitcoin protocol for payments. The problem is that they will not be continuous participants. They will dip in and out.

Some obvious implementation choices are: public vs. private? Is reading the ledger open to all or just to defined members of a limited community? Permissioned vs. permissionless? Are only people with permission allowed to add transactions, or can anyone attempt to add a transaction? True peer-to-peer or merely decentralized? Are all nodes equal and performing the same tasks, or do some nodes have more power and additional tasks?

People also need to decide if they want to use an existing ledger service (e.g. Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple), copy a ledger off-the-shelf, or build their own. Building your own is not easy, but it’s not impossible. People have enough trouble implementing a single database, so a welter of distributed databases is more complex, sure. However, if my firm can implement a couple of hundred with numerous variations, then it is not impossible for others.

The Coin Is Not the Chain

Another sticking point of terminology is adding transactions. There are numerous validation mechanisms for authorizing new transactions, e.g. proof-of-work, proof-of-stake, consensus or identity mechanisms. I divide these into “proof-of-work,”  i.e. “mining,” and consider all others various forms of “voting” to agree. Sometimes, one person has all the votes. Sometimes, a group does. Sometimes, more complicated voting structures are built to reflect the power and economic environment in which the MDL operates. As Stalin said, “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how.”

As the various definitions above show, the blockchain is the data structure, the mechanism for recording transactions, not the mechanism for authorizing new transactions. So the taxonomy starts with an MDL or shared ledger; one kind of MDL is a permissionless shared ledger, and one form of permissionless shared ledger is a blockchain.

Last year, Z/Yen created a timestamping service, MetroGnomo, with the States of Alderney. We used a mutual distributed ledger technology, i.e. a technology that provides an immutable record of transactions shared in common and stored in multiple locations. However, we did not use “mining” to authorize new transactions. Because the incentive to cheat appears irrelevant here, we used an approach called “agnostic woven” broadcasting from “transmitters” to “receivers” — to paraphrase Douglas Hofstadter, we created an Eternal Golden Braid.

So is MetroGnomo based on a blockchain? I say that MetroGnomo uses a MDL, part of a wider family that includes the Bitcoin blockchain along with others that claim use technologies similar to the Bitcoin blockchain. I believe that the mechanism for adding new transactions is novel (probably). For me, it is a moot point if we “block” a group of transactions or write them out singly (blocksize = 1).

Yes, I struggle with “blockchain.” When people talk to me about blockchain, it’s as if they’re trying to talk about databases yet keep referring to “The Ingres” or “The Oracle.” They presume the technological solution, “I think I need an Oracle” (sic), before specifying the generic technology, “I think I need a database.” Yet I also struggle with MDL. It may be strictly correct, but it is long and boring. Blockchain, or even “chains” or “ChainZ” is cuter.

We have tested alternative terms such as “replicated authoritative immutable ledger,” “persistent, pervasive,and permanent ledger” and even the louche “consensual ledger.” My favorite might be ChainLedgers. Or Distributed ChainLedgers. Or LedgerChains. Who cares about strict correctness? Let’s try to work harder on a common term. All suggestions welcome!

The Destructive Search for an Elixir of Life

For 3,500 or more years, mankind has been searching for the mythological elixir of life, the Fountain of Youth, the philosopher’s stone, pool of nectar, etc. that will defeat aging and extend life, if not achieve immortality.

According to Wiki, “The elixir of life, also known as the elixir of immortality and sometimes equated with the philosopher’s stone, is a mythical potion that, when drunk from a certain cup at a certain time, supposedly grants the drinker eternal life and/or eternal youth.”

All around the globe from 400 BC on, alchemists from India to China to Europe were seeking the elixir of life. Many thought gold was an essential ingredient.

The Fountain of Youth, also known as the water of life, was part of the search for the elixir of life. That search was in full throttle during the crusades and was carried to the New World by Spanish explorers, the most famous of whom was Ponce de Leon in the 1500s. Even the Mayans had legends about waters of eternal youth.

The search for the elixir of life didn’t end there.

In the 19th century in the U.S., many believed that bathing in special springs had healing powers. During that era, people flocked to eureka springs, hot springs, healing springs and many, many more. So-called healing spas are still very popular today.

“Snake oil” salesmen were peddling various cure-alls into the 20th century. A search on the Internet will reveal a large number of “promising” balms and salves, some of which actually worked for minor scrapes and burns.

If you’re over 60 or so, you may recall Carter’s Little Liver Pills. They were advertised to treat biliousness and other ailments. The FTC made the company drop the word “liver” from the name. Carter’s Little Pills are still sold, but as a laxative.

If you watched the Lawrence Welk show, you saw ads for Serutan, which is “natures” spelled backward. It’s a “vegetable hydrogel.”

Today, the search for an elixir of life, by various names, is still in high gear, and salesmen abound.

People still pursue the same goal of longer and healthier lives through a mix of vitamins, supplements, wellness, incentives, education, exams, tests, etc. that will push the time of their death out a few years.

But, alas, the human body and its organs simply wear out over time. No insurance plan, wellness plan, patient education program or prevention combination can defeat the inevitable. As we age, our bodies just wear out. For example, the reason brain aneurysms and strokes occur in the elderly is that blood vessels get thinner and more fragile with age. The same applies to other vascular diseases. Joint diseases are common as we age. Why? Joints just wear out over time. Dementia is usually related to aging. The list goes on and on.

According to NIH data, all cancer rates begin to skyrocket at about age 65. That is partially the effect of age-related diminishing immune systems. Our immune systems wear out as we age.

Companies are paying huge dollars to elixir of life promoters today, when all the facts show the elixirs just doesn’t work as advertised. Such companies’ intentions are good, even noble, but doomed to fail. Lesson: Whatever you seek, someone will find a way to sell it to you.

We are all going to have a mortal illness someday unless we die sooner from something like an auto accident. My grandfather died at age 99. Every organ in his body was failing. His kidneys were failing, as were his vascular system, his brain and his liver. Why? He simply outlived his body. I’ve known a number of good people who died a miserable death after years in nursing homes. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Another factor driving up costs in the U.S. has been the creation of the emergency phone number system — dialing 911 and having a life-saving trained team show up at your door in a few minutes. The 911 system saves live, no doubt, but there have been unintended health cost consequences.

If one survives a heart attack, the average cost is about $250,000. Because of the 911 phone system, some 80-year-olds are surviving three heart attacks in nine months just to die from the fourth one, adding $750,000 of cost to their last 12 months. Now, healthcare providers are even putting ventricular assist devices in people like that to keep them alive for one more day. The cost for that procedure alone is $900,000.

I’m not making a comment on the morality of deferring an elderly person’s death for nine months at a cost of $750,000 to $2 million. But we need to have an adult conversation in America about how we are going to pay for all this. By any measurement, Medicare and Social Security are both totally unsustainable unless huge changes are made that will affect everyone. Beware of proposed changes that promote intergenerational rivalries.

This chart shows death rates by age). When people hit about age 50, the death and sickness rates begin to skyrocket.

This chart shows leading causes of death. See the strong correlation to aging and heart disease. People are simply outliving their hearts and blood vessels. In 1900, people rarely died of heart disease because they didn’t live long enough to develop chronic conditions. Most of the chronic diseases we worry about are simply a consequence of aging. They are irreversible. As with the Hydra of Greek mythology, if you defeat one chronic condition, three others will pop up.

The third chart shows health spending by age; again, disease correlates to aging. That will always be the case until someone comes up with a way to prevent aging or finds an “elixir of life.” That chart also illustrates the massive, wasteful spending on end-of-life care in the U.S. compared with peer countries.

People born in the U.S. today can expect to die along a bell curve centering on age 80. If we all do everything we can possibly do to be healthier for all of our lives, there will be slightly fewer deaths around ages 78 or 79. (A great source of information on this topic is Nortin Hadler’s The Last Well Person: How to Stay Well Despite the Health-Care System.)

In any case, if you are able to add a year to your life it will, obviously, be added to the end. For most people, that will mean another year in a nursing home, in assisted living or as an invalid at home. (For a Washington Post article on just how nasty nursing homes can be, click here. Again, I would not wish that on my worst enemy.) People sometimes tell me about someone who was more or less healthy and independent at age 90. For every person like that there are a hundred in nursing homes or dementia units.

Most people retiring today don’t have enough in savings to support themselves for more than a few years, let alone enough to pay for assisted living or nursing homes when they are elderly and frail. Medicaid nursing home budgets are likewise unsustainable. Don’t count on that. For many people, living a year or two longer will simply mean being a burden to your children for another year or two, both financially and emotionally.

What about your children’s lives? Do you really want them to have to look after you well into their 60s? At that age, they should be concentrating on their own welfare.

As people age into their 80s and 90s, many become demanding in an irrational way. Some people aged 55 and up are relieved when their elderly parents pass away, but often with feelings of guilt. Most people have witnessed this in their own families.

Someday, researchers may discover a way to delay the effects of aging. Personally, I believe such is the province of science fiction. If aging is ever reversed, God help us. That would be very destructive to mankind.

Imagine our world populated by a billion or more centenarians. Imagine a nation with an average age of 65. Imagine yourself at age 90 with a 120-year-old parent or two. Who will look after whom? Will 70-year-old children or their 45-year-old children be able to look after and support such parents, grandparents and great-grandparents? The news from Asia is that many young people are no longer willing to support their centenarian parents or grandparents today, let alone great-grandparents.

What should we all do then? Simple. Spend less time wringing your hands over which illness will get you in the end; rather, make the most of the time you have. Worry will never add a day to your life.

The Romans had a blessing: May you live well and die suddenly.

Brain Drain: 22 Steps to Reduce the Impact of Retirement and Increase Employee Retention

Is your organization ready to lose as much as 25% of its intellectual capital in the next decade? You need to be, because more than one quarter of the U.S. working population will be old enough to retire in less than three years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This may lead to a shortfall of nearly 10 million workers. Add this flight to an average job stay of four years, where today’s employees switch to a competitor without so much as a backward glance, and businesses in America are at risk.

America is poised for a brain drain so dramatic that many companies will find themselves unprepared to face the coming talent shortage. Yet it appears few companies are taking steps to deal with the crunch. 

This article explores actions companies can take to manage looming intellectual losses. Some are straightforward; some will take more planning. Any organizational change comes from the top, and industry leaders must deal swiftly and strategically with the changes our work force will undergo in the coming years.

As companies increasingly rely on intellectual capital, the value of work force intelligence to an organization cannot be overstated. There is little doubt that the insurance industry, so reliant on intellectual capital, should be at the forefront of addressing the looming loss of intellectual capacity.

Where Did All the Experts Go?

Brain drain historically has been defined as the loss of human skills in developing nations, usually because of the migration of trained individuals to more industrialized nations or jurisdictions. However, as baby boomers begin to retire, the term is increasingly used to describe the loss of intellectual capital at U.S. organizations. Downsizing also takes its toll on work force intelligence.

The U.S. work force has changed dramatically. A baby boomer’s parents may have held one job in their entire careers; experts estimate a typical young American will hold from seven to 10 different jobs before retirement. Insurance organizations are experiencing brain drain as long-term employees retire, switch employers or change careers. There is little doubt—insurance organizations are about to see drastic changes resulting from this exodus.

Future employment demographics should sound an alarm to insurance companies in America. Over time, the lack of top talent can be devastating to an organization, especially in an industry as complex as insurance. Add an increasing dependence on technology, and future employee skill deficits are a certainty, not just a theory. While this exodus is beginning to hit the insurance industry now, it will accelerate greatly in the next few years as aging boomers, those best placed to assume senior management roles, retire. This talent shrinkage must be managed now, before organizations find themselves in crisis.

Penny-Wise, Pound Foolish?

It may seem profitable to replace an older, more costly employee with a younger person. However, organizations may lose a great deal more than they bargained for with that replacement. With the departure of these highly experienced employees, companies lose more than their individual expertise. Also lost is what psychologist Daniel Wegner calls “transactive memory.”1 Transactive memory is information a person accesses that is outside of his or her own memory, information routinely called up by using another person’s memory.2 Groups where this transactive memory is understood and valued function better than groups that lack this trait.3

Take co-workers. On a difficult property claim, an adjuster may turn to a co-worker and ask, “What is the name of that engineer we used a few years ago in Georgia on that storm-surge claim?” Our brains can store only so much information. If we have access to people around us who may be more suited to remember a particular type of information, then we don’t have to work as hard to remember items that we don’t understand, don’t recall or don’t need at the time we hear it.

Brain drain slows the work process and impairs a company’s product quality. It can result in inefficiency because of the time it takes employees to find new co-workers with the information they may need. It can also result in costly mistakes resulting in lawsuits, lost subrogation opportunities or claims paid that, with a thorough investigation, would have been denied. Probably most importantly, a work force lacking robust intellectual capital loses its strategic advantages and abilities to respond quickly to business opportunities.

Insurance professionals are concerned about brain drain, yet even a casual review of insurance literature shows that much of the focus in industry research centers on improving technology to enhance operations. Even the term “human-resource management” seems to be morphing into a robot-like term, “human-capital management.” This disembodied approach seems to negate the fact that we’re still dealing with people; yes, they may be “capital’ to a company, but most employees would be offended to hear themselves referred to in that manner. “Talent management,” the new euphemism for recruiting and retaining employees, again seems to dehumanize the worker. Few people appreciate being “managed” or referred to as “capital.”

The emphasis in insurance companies seems to have shifted away from quality toward quantity. How much faster can we complete a process, appears to be the question. Can we settle a claim in 30 days, even if we have to throw more money at it? Has customer service and quality been forgotten in the effort to improve company operations? Have we, in an effort to increase profits, driven much of our brightest talent right out the door?

The Devalued Older Worker

Insurance message boards are filled with complaints from older, highly experienced insurance professionals who cannot find work, some with two to three decades of knowledge. “I have a solution to the brain drain in the insurance industry. Hire me and all those still looking for work … and some of the people whose resumes are posted on the Broward County RIMS website, among others,”4 one frustrated professional said in a June 2007 on-line risk management discussion. If these complaints are true, the widespread reluctance by insurance organizations to hire older, experienced workers may backfire because of the lack of new talent breaking down doors to enter the industry.

Nowhere is brain drain felt more acutely, it appears, than in claims departments nationwide. According to Conning Research & Consulting,5 70% of the nation’s adjusting staff is age 40 or older. “I have found this [talent leakage] particularly true in the claims arena,” according to James Brittle, a producer in the National Accounts division of Cobbs, Allen & Hall in Birmingham, Alabama.  “Coming from the highly engineered chemical and energy field, try to find one carrier that still has experienced and knowledgeable adjusters to handle property claims. There are two options — young and inexperienced or experienced and independent. The latter group is getting smaller and smaller. It’s not real comforting.”

How can companies prevent brain drain? Here are some possible solutions.6

1. Analyze current workforce strengths and talents to determine core competencies.

If an employee’s store of knowledge is known only to a few co-workers, then it is largely useless to the organization as a whole. It becomes an information silo, a vertical information cluster that is not transmitted laterally to co-workers, usually to the detriment of the organization. Analyzing employees’ expertise and knowledge and categorizing it so that it becomes accessible by other employees and departments is critical to improving and strengthening the work force.

2. Determine, through surveys or informal meetings or email queries, where employees go for specific information.

Who are your employees’ “information agents” in given areas? Imagine this scenario—a Lloyd’s underwriter wants to issue a binding authority to an agent in Florida. Before agreeing, however, the underwriter must determine wildfire hazards in the counties where the agent wants to write business. If the underwriter can, with a few keystrokes, search a database that shows Lloyd’s experts who understand catastrophe modeling and perhaps understand wildfire exposures particularly well, the decision to issue the binding authority can be made more easily and accurately, not to mention more quickly.

Knowledge Asset Mapping, written about extensively by British researcher Bernard Marr, allows organizations to locate and diagram internal knowledge. This visualization of intellectual capital, which Marr states is the “principal basis for competitive advantage,”7 can then be used as a strategic planning tool so that organizations can predict future intelligence gaps before they occur.

Today’s organizations must be agile to compete. Classifying employee knowledge to make it more accessible to others in the organization can help companies make decisions rapidly. It goes without saying that companies like Apple have seized marketplace opportunities to catapult themselves into leadership positions. Without sufficient intellectual capital, however, a company may not be robust enough to respond to opportunities as they arise.

3. Prepare to replace exiting information agents when those employees retire.

In smaller organizations, this process may not be formal. It may be as simple as acknowledging that an employee who is an expert on a subject is leaving. Notify all employees of the loss of this person, then direct them to another employee who may not have as much knowledge, but has some knowledge in that area. The company must develop incentives and time frames so that newer information agents can become experts on specific topics as gaps arise, and even before they arise.

4. Determine which employees are potential flight risks, whether to retirement, recruitment or family pressures such as aging parents.

Talk openly with employees who are considering retirement or having home/work difficulties to determine how you can retain them. Flexibility is the key—the employee may need more time off or greater leeway to work non-core hours or to work at home. If the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is voluntary, your organization should consider allowing FMLA leave.

5. Hire retiring employees as consultants on a part-time basis to retain their expertise.

With increasing cost of medical care for retirees, many welcome a supplement to their retirement income. Adding benefit package components that appeal to older workers, such as long-term care insurance or prorated health coverage for part-time work, may help retain them, as well.

6. Provide incentives for employees to consider postponing retirement.

When an organization considers the total impact of losing a long-term employee, it is generally cheaper to retain that employee than to hire and train a replacement, especially if the employee’s knowledge routinely saves the company money. Consider the following scenario:

A claims manager will retire in two years, after working more than 30 years for just two carriers. He is one of the top arson investigators in the Midwest, taking dozens of arson claims to trial or to closure. Currently, there is no one else in his company who handles arson files without his supervision, and no one who remotely approaches his level of expertise.

What happens to this company when he leaves? How much will his departure cost the company in terms of claims payments that might have, with his expertise, been compromised or denied? Can this organization really afford to lose the employee’s expertise without a solid exit strategy?

7. Use technology to drive intra-company communications.

Intranets, videoconferencing, peer-to-peer technology and podcasts are information ways that allow workers to communicate over distance and varying time zones. Encourage disparate and divergent workers to develop virtual relationships to share ideas and solve problems using these tools. Why not take advantage of your global work force?

8. Establish “practice communities” where individuals from various departments — claims, underwriting, marketing and reinsurance — meet regularly to solve problems.

According to James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, a crowd is a group of diverse people with differing levels of intelligence and information who collectively make smart decisions. A good example of this wisdom, as many claims managers have found, is “round tabling” a claim. Allowing a group of adjusters with varying amounts of experience to determine a claim’s value or to develop a plan of action to kick a stalled claim forward often provides excellent results and acts as a learning tool for less experienced team members.

Surowiecki defines four elements that make a smart crowd. He recommends a diverse group because each person will bring a different set of experiences to the process. The crowd should have no leader, so that the group’s answer can emerge. But there must be a way to articulate the crowd’s verdict. Finally, people in the crowd must be self-confident enough to rely on their own judgment without undue influence from other group members.

With today’s sophisticated technology, organizations don’t have to rely solely on local talent. A company-wide initiative can be implemented readily with some help from your organization’s information technology department. Practice communities build virtual relationships that, in turn, make employees more connected to the organization.

9. Organize and memorialize your practice community results with wikis, a decade-old web application that allows many people to collaborate on a single document.

There are several sites dedicated to collaborative writing, including https://www.zoho.com/docs/. Visit http://www.wikipedia.org, the on-line encyclopedia written by collaboration, to view an example of wiki technology at its finest.

10. Implement a formal mentoring program.

Some insurance organizations have implemented mentoring programs. The National Association of Catastrophe Adjusters formed a mentoring program in 2005. While not online, it matches new adjusters eager to learn CAT adjusting with experienced field adjusters.

Aon Services is almost a year into an ambitious mentoring project. With 600 Aon employees in the pilot program developed with assistance from Triple Creek Associates in Colorado, Aon expects to roll out the program companywide. The program was not limited to senior manager mentors; anyone in the organization with good performance was eligible to participate. “This challenged our operational paradigms, to have a junior person mentoring a senior person,”8 according to Talethea M. Best, Aon’s director of U.S. talent development.

The results have been positive, she reports. 86% of the mentees and 62% of the mentors who responded to a recent survey felt that the process improved their own performance. 85% of the mentees and 78% of the mentors would participate again if asked.

“We encouraged a protégé-driven process,” Ms. Best said. Potential mentees used a computerized platform with specific parameters to search for what they wanted in the mentor relationship. “It was a win/win for all involved,” Ms. Best said.

“This [mentoring project] was an opportunity for us to think more strategically,” Ms. Best reported. “To retain employees, it is critical to make people feel invested and engaged. How do you make folks feel like they make a significant contribution? Mentoring is a way to address that,” at a cost of pennies per employee, Ms. Best said.

Not all managers are mentor material. To be effective, mentors must receive some training. Aon addressed this concern with initial employee development workshops.

To ensure the highest quality mentorship for your employees, it is critical that mentors are carefully selected not only for their technical skills, but for their ability to communicate effectively in an increasingly diverse work force.

11. Pool knowledge across organizations.

Your Encore, founded by Procter & Gamble and Eli Lilly, is a society of retired research scientists and engineers who “continue to provide value―at its highest level—to companies on a consulting basis,” according to its website. The insurance industry is particularly well-suited to this approach because risk pools changed the face of insurance, so the models to implement this approach are already well-accepted by our industry. Don’t be unreasonable with information, but do set some ground rules and ensure employees comprehend which information is proprietary and which can be shared.

12. Cross train employees.

“A former employer of mine combined the loss control and underwriting functions,’”9 and it worked out well, reports Mike Benisheck, director of risk management for Pacific Tomato Growers. “They had a historical loss ratio of 30–32% annually for about 15 years.” When the functions were separated, losses spiraled, Benischeck reported.

Cross training can limit employee burnout and provide new motivation for employees who feel stymied in their careers. It also strengthens an organization’s operational team.

13. Cultivate a culture that values expertise.

To prevent brain drain, an organization must provide an atmosphere that values aging workers and the knowledge they possess. Recognizing, but more importantly acknowledging, their contributions to the organization, not just the number of claims they close or the amount of new business they produce, may mean keeping employees a few years longer. Small changes in any organization, as anyone who read the book The Tipping Point knows, can mean enormous changes overall.

Younger workers should be made aware of demographic trends and what they mean to their careers. Many younger workers are eager for career advancement. The demographics pointing to a sharp talent drop are in their favor if they prepare themselves, and organizations help them prepare, to take supervisory and management positions. Few younger workers recognize this trend. Organizations that speak frankly of these developments and what they mean to each person, not just the organization itself, will build loyalty and perhaps help to cultivate patience in generations that are used to quick answers and quick solutions.

14. Encourage employees to join online insurance groups like RiskList or PRIMA-Watch.

Insurance professionals are notoriously generous with their time and information when it comes to helping their counterparts, as any insurance industry employee knows who belongs to a professional organization. Insurance server lists have been online for many years with a faithful membership. List members will respond to just about any inquiry with an impressive depth and breadth of knowledge, with some humor thrown in, as well.

15. Support employee membership in professional organizations like your local claims association, Insurance Women, RIMS or CPCU Society.

“Support” means paying dues and supporting the absences necessary for employees to both attend conferences and to hold committee positions. This gives employees a strong network to turn to for information and support. There has been a mindset in the industry that allowing employees to network outside the company increased the employee’s flight risk. More enlightened managers realize that if employees feel valued for their expertise and encouraged in their professional development, they are generally more loyal to their employers.

16. Offer incentives for obtaining professional designations. Offer greater incentives for attending classes rather than online participation.

According to the CPCU Society, in 2006, 88% of CPCUs were age 40 or older. Taking a class from an experienced instructor with students from other companies and disciplines gives students a much broader experience. It also exposes them to others with whom they can network or seek advice. Designations are a clear indicator that employees see insurance as not just a job, but a career.

17. Avoid the human resources “silo.”

An information silo is a pool of information that is not well-integrated in an organization. Human resources departments often act as “silos,” gatekeepers in the hiring process, by determining which applicants get interviewed. Forming inter-departmental hiring panels, teams that develop job descriptions, review applications and give input on general hiring and other personnel issues like employee retention, can greatly improve a company’s work force.

18. Don’t underestimate the impact that younger generations and their different work standards have on older workers.

There are four generations of workers in today’s increasingly diverse workforce. With Millennials, Gen Xers and Yers in the employment mix, many young people are either intimidated by older workers or are downright contemptuous. Older workers, in turn, often cannot comprehend their younger peers’ thinking and may be intimidated by their ease with technology.

Forming intergenerational teams can bring divergent employees together so that they can benefit from each others’ strengths, not just complain about their weaknesses. Utilizing younger workers who are good communicators and technologically proficient to train older workers in new technology can bridge two gaps—the generation gap and the technology gap. In turn, older workers can mentor younger employees and model appropriate and ethical behavior.

19. Consider the Total Cost of Jerks (TCJ) to the organization.

Verbal abuse, intimidation and bullying are widespread in the American work force.10 But some companies are taking notice. There is a growing trend in companies to consider the TCJ impact on the work force, including several organizations on Fortune’s “100 Best Places to Work.”

Robert Sutton, Ph.D., professor of management science and sngineering in the Stanford Engineering School, views “jerks” in a much more explicit light. Sutton wrote The No Asshole Rule, a business bestseller that provides steps organizations can take to quantify the cost of jerks and eliminate them.

He lists the “dirty dozen,” the top 12 actions taken by those who use organizational power against those with less power. “It just takes a few to ruin the entire organization,” Sutton writes.11

Older workers may have seen it all, but they don’t always have the patience to put up with twits. That jerk in the cubicle next to a long-term employee may be the final nudge that pushes a valued older worker out the door. Most employees who have options like retirement tolerate jerks for just so long, and then they clean out their desks.

Eliminating toxic employees can improve more than the organization’s internal structure, because if an employee treats coworkers badly, how is he treating your customers?

20. Make the most of the existing work force.

Studies have found that as much as 40% of the time spent handling a claim can be spent in administrative tasks that don’t affect the claim’s outcome significantly. It makes sense, then, to drive work down to its lowest possible level of the organization. Are adjusters still issuing checks, composing the same letters over and over and answering calls that could be delegated? According to employment consultant Peter Rousmaniere, some corporations are outsourcing their claims-support systems.  “[Outsourcing] offers the potential of injecting into the claims management process some very intelligent, well-educated people who are very motivated to perform functions [that], due to global information systems, they can do proficiently.”

21. Don’t overlook diversity.

Many employees are overlooked in the promotional process because they are of different nationalities, ethnicities or gender than the dominant makeup of an organization. Whites follow a different career path than their non-white counterparts, according to David A Thomas, author of an article on minority mentoring that appeared in the Harvard Business Review. Whites frequently get more attention from their managers and hence more opportunities.

Thomas’s research showed that the one common attribute people of color who rose to the tops of their organizations had was mentorship, but mentorship that went beyond what he termed “instructional.” They had mentors who provided a deeper relationship that increased their mentees’ confidence and did not shy away from frank discussions about race.12 If we fail in our organizations to see beyond employees’ gender, skin color or religious beliefs, we may overlook our brightest talent.

22. Address the problems of brain drain strategically.

To date, there is a great deal of discussion on brain drain in the insurance industry, but little empirical evidence to use to determine which methods might avoid this loss. Many insurance executives are talking about the problem in conferences and trade journals, but what are insurance companies doing to address it?

To create organizational change, an organization must start with a vision. What are the problems we face, and what are their consequences both short-term and long-term? Where will our work force needs and realities stand in five years?

Effective Organizational Change Begins with a Plan

Without a roadmap, even the savviest traveler occasionally gets lost. To address brain drain strategically, a company must develop a strong vision and a stronger plan. This plan can be implemented over time, but it must have clear goals and time frames to avoid becoming mired down in processes.

From top management to line supervisors, there must be a shared sense of urgency about this problem, because any critical initiative can go astray because of the competition that all organizations face in today’s highly competitive global market. To solve the coming talent crunch, organizations must commit the resources to tackle this problem strategically, while there is still time.

1 Wegner, Daniel, Paula Raymond, and Ralph Erber. “Transactive Memory in Close Relationships,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61 (1991): 923––929.

2 Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown & Company.

 3 Ibid.

4 RiskList Users Group, June 23, 2007.

5 “Generational Talent Management for Insurers: Strategies to Attract and Engage Generation Y in the U.S. Insurance Industry,” Deloitte & Touche, 2007.

6 Private communication.

7 Marr, Bernard, and J.C. Spender. “Measuring Knowledge Assets – implications of the knowledge economy for performance measurement.” Measuring Business Excellence 8(2004): 18–27.

8 Private communication.

9 Private communication.

10 Lutgen-Sandvik, P., Tracy, S. J., & Alberts, J. K. (in-press). Burned by bullying in the American workplace: Prevalence, perception, degree, and impact. Journal of Management Studies.

11 Sutton, Robert. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. 1st. New York: Warner Business Books, 2007, p. 180.

12 Thomas, David A. “The Truth About Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters.” Harvard Business Review April 2001.