The role of IT is changing at a staggering rate. Once viewed as a cost center, IT is becoming a strategic player in today’s business landscape. We’re witnessing CIOs increasingly transition into CFO roles as well as more CIO engagement at the board level, all pointing to the power of IT if treated as a strategic asset.
To get more insight into the changing role of IT, I recently sat down with Jeff Rauch, vice president of IT at ICW Group, a leading national insurance carrier with over 300,000 customers and 700 employees. At ICW Group, Jeff is adopting a cloud-first philosophy to become unbelievably good at integration, data movement and data analysis—three components he believes are critical to any company’s success today. (Disclosure: ICW Group is a customer of my employer, MuleSoft.)
In part one of this Q&A series, Jeff discusses the changing role of IT, how he is thinking about insurtech disruptors and the future of the insurance industry.
The role of IT is getting increasingly harder. Why on earth do you do it?
Jeff Rauch: If I didn’t come into work every day and solve problems or help to create new opportunities that didn’t exist before, I would be really bored. With the high demands on IT, it does create a lot of strain on me and my team. Being part of a growth company, we routinely work nights, weekends and holidays, especially when beta testing and executing large deployments. However, IT is the perfect place for people like myself who love challenging and stimulating work.
How is the role of IT changing?
JR: I’m noticing two big changes. First is the way we engage with our internal stakeholders and business partners. Our company is really starting to view customer engagement and business processes as a living organism and IT as the machine that powers it. My team is starting to be brought into discussions earlier as a trusted advisor to help design solutions to business problems rather than just technical issues. As a result of technology being a natural disruptor, IT is also becoming a status quo “challenger” to help drive better outcomes.
Second, IT leaders need to focus on talent development more now than ever before. Today, people in IT focus way too much on technology. I take great pride in dedicating a large part of my job to attracting and developing IT talent. If IT leaders aren’t giving their teams challenging opportunities, clear career paths, and safe work environments—meaning they can fail confidently and try again—their top talent won’t stick around. IT leaders need to take responsibility for developing valued team members that will be loyal and work hard…to do that their employees need purpose. With IT demands trending upward, it’s paramount to foster a work environment that keeps employees engaged and excited to come into work every day.
What are the biggest challenges for IT leaders today?
JR: The biggest challenge I encounter is the expectation that IT is now easy. Stakeholders and customers look at companies like Amazon, Facebook and Instagram and say, “This is the experience I now expect. Why don’t we have this yet and how quickly can you get it done?” The instinct is to reply, “These companies are different because their primary focus is on breaking the status quo, and they have hundreds of the top engineers (probably getting paid 2-5x as much as my folks) to drive this innovation.” However, it’s not a good response.
It can be challenging to curb the skyrocketing demand for “new” and focus time on executing the things that really matter. I often pause and ask, “Why do you want this type of experience? What is the value proposition for our customers? How will you know if it hits the mark?” When we chase innovation rather than embed it into a plan that aligns with our company’s desired outcomes and goals, long-term value can be difficult to obtain. It’s not about the shiny new toy or tactical projects, it’s about driving real business value to our customers.
How is ICW Group thinking about insurtech disruptors?
JR: At ICW Group, we know a few insurtechs will really hit the mark and we want to be aligned with them when they do. In terms of how I personally view them, in some regards, their impact is negative because they come in and blow people away with their cool demos and make everything look so easy, setting a false perception of what it really takes to execute. At this point, many of the insuretech solutions we’ve evaluated will require a lot of time and collaboration to produce a solid solution that will add real value.
In other regards, they are extremely positive because it gives us a great opportunity to look at our business in a different light and forces us to explore new ways of solving old problems. In the past, financial services companies had a hard time spending money on innovation. However, when innovation starts knocking on your door almost every day, it’s hard to ignore. Because of insurtechs, a fire has been lit under us to evaluate our position and adapt to a new way of thinking. It’s raising all the right questions about our current offerings and how we might explore some partnerships to close our capability gaps.
What’s important to remember is the insurance industry is highly regulated. On top of that, there’s a lot of different components within the insurance value chain that no one really wants to touch because it’s not sexy and doesn’t generate big returns. ICW Group is an insurance carrier, and I don’t think carriers (much like big banks) will go away in my lifetime. The nature of our business will change over time as partnerships with insurtech disruptors evolve. I believe insurtech startups will disrupt distribution channels, how we engage with our customers, and will cause significant refinement within certain areas of our company like risk management and claims handling. I believe the core of insurance processing will always be there in some way, shape or form because of the fundamentals of the business and the regulatory / financial nature of the business.
What does an insurance company like ICW Group look like in 10 years?
JR: I think a lot of the core internal blocking and tackling we do today will be simplified and standardized over the next three years. For example, when cancelling a policy today, many systems need to be updated, several of them manually by various users across the company. By modernizing our internal systems and using common APIs to trigger updates, these changes can happen automatically. We have hundreds of examples like this at our company that can be streamlined to really improve our efficiency. Quite frankly, one of my big goals is to reduce the number of “single-use” applications we use since robust solution platforms exist nowadays and can be configured to handle many different business functions.
On the more distant horizon, I think virtual reality (VR) will be part of our standard service offering for a few key areas of our business, and we will certainly leverage machine learning and blockchain.
But to be honest, that’s not the stuff that excites me. Insurance at its core is a service industry. We could have the coolest VR tech out there, but if there is a lot of friction in our core service process, no one will care. What I’m really interested in is helping our business get to the point where we can leverage data and integration at such a high level to improve our primary carrier insurance functions, like moving towards two- or three-question underwriting, and provide immediate, holistic claims servicing.
When we can provide real-time enablement of the insurance process with very little input from our customers and internal users by leveraging internal and open APIs that are linked into a vast data and application network, we can reduce the time spent asking for information and instead focus on better servicing our customers in a more meaningful way. That will help us start to move the needle toward a better future. As we move forward, I believe the winners in Insurance are going to be the best integrators; our integration platform will quickly become the heartbeat of our company.