Moving Insurance IT from Core to More with Novarica’s Martin Higgins
Martin talks about the decade-long transformation of the insurance industry from tech laggards to technology champions, how modernizing core systems enable insurers to better engage with customers, the evolution of low-code implementation, from point solutions with simple processes to enterprise-grade deployments, the importance of culture, proper tooling, and organizational structure to deliver software and enable innovation, and finally, how the next decade will require insurers to focus on great digital experiences to maintain a competitive advantage.
/ Mark Manning /
Welcome to Make/Shift. Mark Manning here, Customer Evangelist at Mendix. We’re here to explore how your peers have adopted low-code, and the pain points they’ve addressed with the platform. We’ll take an authentic, unfiltered look at the solutions our customers are building to digitize their processes, to deliver much-needed solutions to market more quickly, and to cut down the cost of development.
On today’s episode, we chat with Martin, Vice President of Research and Consulting at Novarica, about the decades-long transformation of the insurance industry, from tech laggards to technology champions, how modernizing core systems enable insurers to better engage with customers, and the evolution of low-code implementation, from point solutions to automating simple processes, to enterprise-grade deployments sitting at the core of insurance businesses.
We talk about the importance of culture, proper tooling, and organizational structure to deliver software and enable innovation, and finally, how the next decade will require insurers to focus on great digital experiences to maintain competitive advantage. If you’re interested in taking a deep dive into some of the topics discussed in this episode, check out Martin’s webinar on creating customer experiences that continue the trust and reliability, crucial to insurance carriers, by navigating to Mendix.com/buildbetterexperiences, that’s one word, Mendix.com/buildbetterexperiences.
So, Martin, could we start with an introduction of yourself, your background, and what Novarica is?
/ Martin Higgins /
Sure. Sure thing. Sure thing, Mark. So my name is Martin Higgins. I’m a Vice President of Research and Consulting with a company called Novarica. Novarica is an analyst firm, a research firm, that focuses a hundred percent on the North American insurance market, insurance technology. So I’ve been with Novarica for a couple of years. My focus at Novarica is primarily in … I look at software development trends, best practices that affect the industry. I’m following Agile DevOps development technology, integration technology, customer experience, cloud, low-code, those kinds of things.
Much earlier in my career, I did a fair amount of work in the low-code space. So I’m familiar with low-code and no-code, both from a user of these platforms, but also I actually managed a development shop that was building a low-code platform for the customer support industry, IT management customer support. So I’m familiar with both sides of the low-code, both as a user and as a company that has built them in different times of career.
So, yeah, that’s just a little bit about me, mostly software development-focused, but today, my role at Novarica is really as an industry analyst, helping CIOs. We have over a hundred insurers that are our clients, and we help them make technology decisions, both strategic and tactical, across the entire industry.
/ Mark Manning /
I suppose maybe a smart place to start would be talking about what the last decade or so has looked like for insurers, with respect to their IT systems. So maybe the tech they’ve been tweaking with and modernizing, why insurers embarked on these projects in the first place, the business goals behind them.
/ Martin Higgins /
Sure, sure. So the last 10 to 15 years or so has been a time of significant change in the insurance industry. I’ll say even looking back 20 years ago, lots of insurance carriers … Insurance isn’t the fastest moving industry. It’s quite conservative or at least historically, it was quite conservative with regards to technology. But certainly within the last … When I started in the industry, which was probably about 2000, many carriers were still running on legacy systems, other mainframe or AS400 type systems or early client server systems, which older technology, expensive to maintain, hard to change, all the typical drawbacks that you have.
So the last probably 15 to 20 years has seen the industry significantly advance in terms of technology, introducing modern core systems. So core systems within the insurance industry are called policy administration, claims administration, and billing administration systems. Over the last 15 to 20 years or so, the vast majority of the industry has moved from a legacy footprint into modernizing their core systems.
The other significant advance in technology has been around data. I think this extends obviously beyond the insurance industry, but insurance is one of the most data-intensive of the industries. It’s always been an industry that has relied heavily on data for actuarial work and for pricing and for fraud analysis. So it’s been a really interesting time to be part of the industry because of many of the technologies, whether it be artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics, that been bleeding edge. A lot of that work has been going on in the insurance industry, just because of the reliance on data.
Then the other thing is just digitization in general, which again is something that has affected the insurance industry, much like most other industries. So elimination of paper, the shift from paper documents to electronic documents, workflows, and then a shift in focus to the user experience and portals, both for agents and customers, has been … So it’s been a really interesting 20 … The last 10 years has been really transformational in the industry in terms of the role of IT and insurer budgets have increased significantly versus what they were. Insurance has gone from being an industry that’s lagged in terms of technology to one of those, where certainly in some of the areas, it’s ahead of most other industries in terms of adoption of bleeding edge technologies.
Just in terms of the business drivers for that, you asked about … It’s really the standard things. It’s selling more. So how do I generate more revenue from my customer base, either by from my existing customers or expanding my customer base? Costing less to operate has always been a big driver for it, in terms of increasing efficiency, both for within the organization, but also for the sales force, the agents in most cases.
Then managing risk better is the other major driver. So obviously insurance is an industry that monetizes the management of risk and that applies internally within the organization, as much as it does managing customer’s risks. So, the use of technology to effectively manage the risk of whether it be through fraud, whether it be through the analysis of catastrophes and weather patterns, whether it be even managing IT risk associated with hosting or business continuity, those kinds of things.
So it’s been primarily … It’s been difficult to, over the last 10 years or so, there’s been a shift. It very much goes in line with the economics of the particular, whether it’s a hard insurance market, a soft insurance market. You get a shift in focus from revenue generation potentially, how do I sell more, to maybe to more of a … currently, we’re going through a little bit with COVID and there’s more focus on costing less to operate. How do I squeeze some of the costs out of my processes?
Technology investment tends to follow the economics of the situation, depending on whether we’re in a growth cycle or whether we’re in a contraction cycle.
/ Mark Manning /
To double down a little bit on that transition interaction systems, the last decade plus has seeing these companies create these elegant, neat core administration systems. But the next question seems to be from there, at least, after modernizing their core, is what do I do with this? Maybe about the experience agents, customers, and employees can have around that data and functionality. Could you talk a little bit about how that’s materializing, and why it’s so important?
/ Martin Higgins /
In terms of early replacement of core systems … So the core system within the insurance industry, if you’re outside of the industry, you can think of it as the ERP of the insurance organization. Then there are some peripheral components around data and also distribution management. So how do you interact with your distribution partners or your sales force?
Insurance is interesting because the selling of insurance products historically has not been performed by the insurance companies themselves. It’s been performed most often by independent agents. So these are often mom and pop shops that you’ll find on the high street historically, that have partnered with the larger insurance companies to distribute. They act as a distribution arm for the insurance companies, but they are all independent.
Historically, when you look at core replacement, really you’re looking at the inside of the insurance organization itself. So you’re looking at: How do I process policies more effectively? How do I process bills? How do I generate bills more effectively? Then how do I process claims in a timely manner so that if there is a loss, that the policy holder can get reimbursed for that loss?
Historically, the focus of core replacement was around that kind of technology. It was around the back-office technology and probably 10, 15 years ago, 15 years ago probably, the idea of digital interaction with the agent workforce became really important. So you would see early on, agents would deal primarily with paper. They weren’t particularly technologically sophisticated.
In the early days, it was very much you would fill out an application form for insurance. Somebody would come into the agent’s office. They would give them some information. The agent would fill in some paperwork and then it would get submitted on paper to the insurance carrier. The insurance carrier would turn around and quote it. It was a paper back and forth.
One of the things that emerged over the last 15 to 20 years was the idea of doing this digitally via portals. So that became a significant driver for a lot of the modernization work that’s taken place in the industry during that time period. So some of the earlier administration systems, I say the earlier modern administration systems, came with pre-packaged portals. So as well as your policy billing and claim system, you would have an externally-facing portal that your agents could use to interact directly in a digital fashion with the insurance backend.
So they could quote online. They could submit claims online. They could look at billing history and so on online. That was all well and good for a significant period of time. What many carriers found was that that experience that the agent … When agents weren’t interacting significantly with a lot of their business digitally, that their expectations were quite low. So the first generation of agent portals, they didn’t have to be all that sophisticated. In reality, they were pretty basic.
As agents became more sophisticated, they started to demand more from portals that were provided by carriers. It became a differentiating factor, in terms of where an agent would place business, because agents have a choice often. They’ll work with multiple insurance companies, and obviously incentives are going to be part of the reason why they place business with one insurance company versus another.
But another factor was how easy are they to do business with? How easy is insurer X to do business with? If they’re significantly easier than insurer Y, then oftentimes the business would get placed that way. So, ease of doing business became increasingly important. Oftentimes, the first-generation portals that insurance companies rolled out when were not deemed to be sufficient, were not deemed to be good enough. They also weren’t particularly customized in terms of different types of user and making it easy to use and so on.
So insurers have over the last 10 years or so, been investing heavily in that digital experience, because really what it translates into, if you have a good digital experience for your agents and ultimately for your customers, then you can sell more. You can also help your agents to be more effective, spend more time selling because they’re not spending as much time with the back and forth processes of pushing paper around and the administrative side of insurance, which historically, has been quite onerous.
So there’s been a significant increase in focus on building out agent portals and customer portals that that can help with driving revenue, as well as reducing the cost, reducing the cost to operate. That means moving oftentimes beyond the basic capabilities that are provided by the backend systems, the core systems.
/ Mark Manning /
Given your experience, could you provide some examples of how carriers are creating these experiences now, for better or for worse, whether traditional development using that off-the-shelf functionality from core systems providers or lower no-code offerings, maybe just cautionary tales and best practices on how carriers are doing this right now?
/ Martin Higgins /
Sure, sure. So as I mentioned early on, you really had a couple of choices. You could use the agent portal that was provided by your administration vendor. In many cases, the administration vendor would provide some portal experience. That could be as simple as just a new set of roles for your agent. They would still use the same user experience as your internal folks, but they adjust were restricted in terms of what they could access they were set up in the system as agents.
Then they would log into the system just like an underwriter would log into the system. They would be able to write and quote and submit claims and do billing entry and that thing through essentially the same interface as the underwriters were using. That obviously didn’t lead to a very good customer experience because these administration systems are very sophisticated, lots of functionality, and navigation was relatively complex. That’s all well and good if you’re an underwriter and you’re in that system every day and you can get familiar with the navigation and the flow around submitting certain kinds of transactions and data entry.
These products can be quite complicated. Hundreds of different fields with lots of different rules. If you’re an agent that maybe is working with five to 10 different insurance companies, getting familiar with all of those different insurance systems became a real drag. So exposing your core system to your agent workforce was something that was tried initially, but it proved itself not to be very effective. Agents are not underwriters and they’re not in the system every day. So they need an experience that’s tailored to them and that’s much more straightforward, much more streamlined and much more guided.
The other option was many of the core system vendors start to generate their own portals that were aimed at the agent. So they did have that. They had much more simpler flows, simpler screens. They were much easier to use. They often had wizard metaphors for entering quotes. So they were a significant improvement over just allowing the agents into use the core system itself, but they still had some drawbacks. They weren’t easy to customize.
It wasn’t easy as a carrier to differentiate yourself from the competition. If everybody was using system X, then everybody’s portal looked like system X. So how do you how do you provide a better experience than your competition, if you all have a similar portal? So many of the larger carriers… Plus, the other downside of using the carrier’s portal or with the core system portal is that you may have multiple core systems in the background. Many insurance companies still today, will run one system for personal lines, one system for the commercial lines, one system for their workers’ compensation business. They may have a different system for life.
So providing a single portal for your agents to use, where they can quote all of those different products became a real challenge. Obviously, you need to be able to integrate with multiple backend systems. So using a portal associated with any one of those backend systems really wasn’t a good solution. So, the next stage, well, certainly with larger carriers that ran multiple backend systems, was they would build a custom portal and they would use whatever technology of the day was around. Most of them were fairly standard technology, old school model view controller, J2E applications or .NET applications.
The challenge with that, though, of course, is you now running a big development team, and these UI-type frameworks, they age. If you look back 10 years, many of the frameworks that you saw 10 years ago just aren’t even around today. If you look at JSF or you look at Struts they’ve significantly declined with the early .NET frameworks significantly declining in usage.
Most carriers today are using React or Angular or Vue or something like that. So you’re going through a cycle of having to rewrite your application, your agent portal every few years, which is a significant expense. You’re basically throwing away what you had before and writing it from scratch. Again, that may be the only choice that you have, if you have multiple backend systems that need to be pulled together to provide a single user interface for your agents.
So one of the more recent trends that we’ve seen, and, again, this has been probably five to 10 years in the making as well, is a shift towards low-code platforms. They’re what we term, obviously Mendix is one of these, but they provide many of the same capabilities as, and I’m sure your clients already know all this, but you can do many of the same kinds of things that you can do with a UI framework. But they’re easier to use. It’s faster time to market, and you run less of a risk that the technology is going to become obsolete, that some new framework of the day is going to come along in five years’ time, and all the momentum in the development market’s going to shift from, we’ll say, from Struts to Angular like it did you over the last few years.
So that’s something we see increasingly common when it comes to agents, customer portals, digital engagement, is this shift towards low-code technology. It goes hand in hand with the cloud obviously. As you start to be able to leverage cloud platforms and cloud technology, then these kind of low-code platforms tend to go hand-in-hand with that, right? You have to worry much less about the underlying platform, the underlying technology, the underlying architecture. How many servers do I need? How many databases do I need? You just worry about the customer experience. What kind of experience do I need? What systems do I need to integrate with…
So it really shifts the focus from being a technology infrastructure project to being focused on what’s really important, which is how do I engage with my customers? How do I provide them with an experience that is engaging and that pulls them in and helps them to be effective so that they can sell more for me, so that they’re efficient?
So we see that. We see companies using the low-code platforms like Mendix. We also see the core system vendors are shifting as well, to being more … They’ve recognized that the low-code players have real distinct value. We’re seeing some of the core admin vendors also move into the low-code space with regards to providing platforms that allow better, more engaging digital experiences to be built.
/ Mark Manning /
I suppose there’s this waning, but still significant assumption that low-code isn’t show-ready for this sort of implementation, say cloud-based, mission-critical, bespoke UI. Perhaps without mentioning vendors or customers, could you talk a little bit about some effective or impressive implementations with the technology that you’ve seen in your time at Novarica?
/ Martin Higgins /
Yeah, it certainly … I’ll say if you look back 10 years ago, when this space was still relatively new, I don’t know that even the term low-code had been, as a marketing term had been, was around even then. But certainly, these technologies have been around for longer than that. Early on, I think there were limitations in terms of what you could do, the size of application that you could build in many cases.
There was a lot of focus around the development tools per se, and less focus around the management side of things. So how do you do change management, change control? How do you monitor what’s out there? How do you make sure that your data privacy regulations are being enforced? How do you make sure that the backups are taking place? So there’s a lot of focus on drag and drop tooling and workflow designers and that kind of thing, and much weaker when it came to software lifecycle management, which I think early on, turned some companies off.
I think they could see the value, but they could also see some of the risks associated with low-code, because if you look back at some of the early low-code platforms, one of the biggest headaches that companies have even to this day are either SharePoint applications that nobody can support or even worse, Lotus Notes. There are many companies that are still running Lotus Notes or Domino because there were some low-code applications that were built on those that nobody can support. They’re running on a server under a desk somewhere, and the company is afraid to turn them off because they’ve got nothing to replace them.
So some of the early low-codes, technologies that came on the scene, I think left a bad taste in companies’ mouths for a period of time and certainly made it a little bit more … They made them more reluctant to engage with these technologies. I would say that’s changed significantly. From what we see when we look at the industry and talk to the CIOs, this market has definitely come of age, in terms of level of maturity. There’s been a huge focus on software life cycle management, on monitoring, on allowing for co-development between business users and IT users, which again, has always been historically been a big pain point.
We’ve seen some fairly significant rollouts of sophisticated systems using low-code technology. So historically, they would be limited to small departmental applications, maybe small web applications. But we’re seeing some carriers develop, instead of using the core system, the UI of the core system internally, they’ve developed entirely new user experiences on top of the core system that they use both internally and externally.
We’ve seen some fairly large enterprise-wide deployments of different kinds of low-code solutions that have gone well beyond just the departmental scale that they … Low-code tools have always been very effective at point solutions within departments and solving inefficiency problems and patching inefficient processes and providing quick and dirty applications to eliminate some manual processes within a department.
But we’ve seen a significant extension of the use beyond that into really, into enterprise scale, where they’re driving workflows across the entire organization where the entire frontend of the system has been built in a low-code platform. Even where the backend of the system, frankly, a good chunk of it is also built on the low-code platform. There are lots of capabilities around integration and the provision of services, and these low-code tools fit very well into a modern microservice-based architecture, which is also where we see the industry going.
So I think, to summarize that, there’s been a significant shift towards much more enterprise-grade deployment of low-code. The earlier implementations proved the value in terms of development, efficiency, and time to market. The addition of the software life cycle management components have allowed CIOs to say, “You know what? We can scale this much bigger than we have done historically, this is actually something we can manage.” Especially when you couple it with the cloud, where the vendor is managing the infrastructure, it really allows for a much broader deployment of these capabilities across the enterprise.
/ Mark Manning /
The last three or four years have just been fascinating, I think, in how sophisticated these use cases are getting.
/ Martin Higgins /
/ Mark Manning /
Shifting a little bit away from tech and more into the human element, I think even with the best technical minds, development frameworks, tools, we know these projects are pretty risky. There’s quite a bit of change management. There has to be support from business and executives. Can you talk about how carriers should be thinking about these projects from the human angle?
/ Martin Higgins /
Yeah. So a lot of this, I see this generally as a maturing of … There’s a lot of convergence going on with low-code, with cloud, with the way that organizations approach developing applications and deploying applications, how they engage with their user groups to do that. So Agile and low-code have historically, low-code tools have been really, really powerful in Agile organizations because working closely with business users, being able to prototype, being able to try things out, fail fast, all of that kind of thing, innovate, all of those things are empowered by a low-code tool set.
One of the other things that we’ve seen, in terms of changes in organizational structure to support this, is the emergence of product management, digital product management. Historically, you didn’t see this in insurance companies. You would have folks within IT, business analysts, oftentimes that would work … maybe UI designers that would be responsible for user interface. But the idea of product management, the way that software companies think about product management, was almost entirely absent in insurance companies, certainly as it relates to digital product.
You still have product managers that were defining insurance products. If I wanted to develop a new commercial product, insurance carriers would have a product manager that would be responsible for defining what the coverages were and what the limits were and that kind of thing. But interestingly, it never came across into the digital product. So what we’re seeing, one of the things we’re seeing, especially when it comes to the digital experience, whether it be external to agents and customers, or even whether it be internal, is you need to define somebody to own it.
We’ve seen a lot of a lot of change within how insurance IT organizations and insurance organizations in general organize themselves to better support customer experience and the product lifecycle. So we are seeing some of this has come from Agile. Some of the scaling frameworks like Safe, for example, have the concept of a product manager. Some of it has come from just industry experience. If you’re trying to understand what makes agents tick and what’s going to be an engaging experience for them, you need a different skillset than you would have if you’re working with underwriters that just are across the desk from you.
So we’ve seen much more, we’ve seen an evolution in the way insurance companies organize. Some of it related to the tooling, but a lot of it just related to … what’s the best way to provide a compelling experience to our customers, so that they will … that’s consistent across the old, the touch points of the customer journey and leads to something measurable in terms of moving the needle, whether it be from revenue or costing, reductions in cost?
So insurance companies in general have become much more sophisticated, in terms of how they deliver software. I think one of those areas of increased sophistication is in the tooling that they use because one of the characteristics of Agile and DevOps and innovation best practice in general, is the idea that you want to be able to get something out quickly, measure it, and then tweak it and tweak it quickly.
You don’t want to be waiting for six months to roll out an update. You want to be watching how the users interact with that system in real-time, and do what you need to do to optimize that customer interaction. That’s something that you just can’t do with traditional development techniques. So with your traditional tools, you’re seeing a lot of DevOps automation, which reduces that turnaround time to get tweaks and changes into production, into the hands of the user.
Then on the other side of that, you’re seeing low-code, which in many ways solves a similar problem. You’ve still got different tools at your disposal for quickly iterating on that customer experience, so that it can be optimized, and so that you provide traceability back to moving the needle with regards to revenue or cost saving or whatever it is that’s important to you.
/ Mark Manning /
The last thing I’m curious about, and this may be a tough one, but what does the next decade look like for insurers with respect to their IT systems, how they interact with their customers, their operating rhythm? What should our insurance listeners aspire to?
/ Martin Higgins /
So that’s interesting. Insurance is going through a fairly major transformation. Historically, it was a disintermediated industry, where you had agents that would have contact with the customer. They owned the customer relationship. Then the insurance company often viewed the agents as their customer and had very little information about the policy holder themselves.
So one of the things that insurance companies have started to realize is even if there is an agent in the middle of that relationship, they need to know more about that customer. They need to track information about the customer, the policy holder, so that they can more actively work on selling to them and making sure that they don’t lose them to a renewal. So this has been a significant shift in the way that insurance companies …
Historically, insurance companies, if you ask them, “Who is your customer?” you really didn’t know what answer you were going to get. Sometimes it was agent. Sometimes it was the policyholder. Sometimes it was a combination, but generally, there wasn’t a clear … I think, a clear vision of who your customer is, wasn’t always there.
But as we move forward, I think most carriers now are becoming very, very clear on who their customer is because they’re dealing with other organizations that have much more information about the customer than they do. So I think one thing you’ll see moving forward is a heightened focus on the customer. It means increased use of CRM. It means more use of customer analytics. Then providing, based on those analytics, providing much more customized user experiences and much more dynamic portal behaviors that reflect what the customer wants to see, how they want to interact.
Today, it’s still fairly static. If you’re a policy holder and you go to a carrier’s portal, you’re going to get a standard flow. In a best-case scenario, it will be tailored to you as a customer, but in some scenarios, you’re going to get the same experience or very similar experience to what the agent would get. We’re already seeing a significant shift away from that to highly customize portals where the insurer knows a lot more about you and your preferences, and it’s providing an experience, an engagement, a customer journey that’s highly personalized, that’s available when you want it, that isn’t just through a portal.
It could be through your mobile device. It could be through chat. So omni-channel, but very much focused on what you as a customer are looking for and providing you the information that you need. That really means much more engagement at the frontend. It means much more data at the backend just to increase all of that towards increasing the revenue, the stickiness with the customer.
Also, I think the other key thing is just time to market for new products is critical. The industry is moving faster than it ever has. To keep pace with that, insurers realize that they need to be able to deliver new products, product enhancements, to market more quickly than their competitors do. That means having very, very flexible technology. You can’t be waiting for six to 12 months to roll out a new product.
Obviously, we have regulatory restrictions in filings by state and that kind of thing, which slows things down, but there is lots of room to maneuver around those. What carriers are finding is if they can deliver product tweaks, product enhancements, bundling offers to market more quickly, they can take advantage of any additional capacity in the market that they didn’t have before.
So all of that leads towards just genuinely more effective tooling and much more customized user frontends. The interface between the customer and the insurance company is becoming a lot more agile, a lot more nimble than it has been historically. I think the other thing, and an obvious one, is just generally the shift towards cloud. It’s accelerating year after year, and the vast majority of systems that we see sold now in the insurance industry are cloud systems. So we’re expecting to see that continue.
Then the other obvious one is AI and machine learning and those kinds of things, which are embedding themselves into everything. So that’s probably … One thing I’ll just finish on is that the pace just seems to be accelerating year after year. Systems turn over much more quickly than they did historically. So the pace of changes is only accelerating and insurance companies need to be aware of that and adjust their internal processes and their technology to reflect the faster demands of the current marketplace.
/ Mark Manning /
I think we’re all excited to see where the industry goes.
/ Martin Higgins /
It’s an interesting time.
/ Mark Manning /
It certainly is. It’s been a fascinating, almost living history, the last couple of decades in insurance, past, present, and future. We hugely, hugely appreciate your time and insights on this. Thank you.
/ Martin Higgins /
You’re very welcome, Mark.
/ Mark Manning /
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