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Ascenzo Won’t Compromise on Importance of Teamwork

Under Carl Ascenzo, BCBSMA's vision of Web-enabled customer interactivity has become a reality.

Individual expertise is indispensable for the successful application of technology to an insurance company's business challenges. But core to the management philosophy of Carl Ascenzo, CIO, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBSMA, Boston, $1.9 billion in assets), is how individuals' capabilities yield synergies in teamwork, both within the organization and with external partners.

Over the past two years, that focus guided BCBSMA's implementation of BlueServeConnect, a new, enterprise-wide CRM platform, and in 2002 Ascenzo has led the carrier's technology organization in the implementation of a record number of solutions. During Ascenzo's tenure the carrier also has also seen its health and wellness site receive an eHealthcare Leadership Award for Best Health Content, and has earned increasingly high service performance ratings from plan members and providers.

The credit for these accomplishments, Ascenzo says, should go to a team distinguished for "a phenomenal understanding of the business we're in as a company." Ascenzo acknowledges his own contribution only obliquely: Before launching strategies, a CIO has to "establish within the seniorleadership and all levels of the enterprise that going forward there will be a sense of teamwork that will not be compromised," he asserts. "We all know that all projects have challenges and obstacles, and when they arise—and they will—teamwork is the only chance we have of overcoming them."

Credibility & Competence

The effective CIO builds on that foundation of collaborative spirit by establishing credibility and creating a strong team, in Ascenzo's opinion. "IT is a business unit of a company, like any other, and as such, you have to do what you said you were going to do, when and for how much you said it would cost," he says. As important as specific technical skills, he adds, is "creating a team with a singularity of values and behaviors that can act accordingly."

The team ethos is especially important in a technology organization such as BCBSMA's, which identifies its core competencies as IT strategy, integration of business and IT strategy, IT architecture, project management, quality assurance and IT partner relationship management, in support of a "buy," versus a "build," model. "Even when we build, we purchase the services to build whatever it is, so we have no programming staff," Ascenzo notes.

BCBSMA's IT organization thus depends on critical business partnerships. Ascenzo's methodology for managing those includes making sure that both parties will share either the gain or the pain associated with an initiative, and that they be "totally inclusive in sharing information." Equally important is that one manages "the values and behaviors so that they coincide and mesh well and align with both organizations." BCBSMA and its largest technology partner, EDS (Plano, TX), "probably spend more time talking about alignment of objectives, values and behaviors than we do about whether the actual metrics are being met or not."

The partnership with EDS played a major role in the wake of BCBSMA CEO Bill Van Faasen's call in 1998 for the health insurer to make member satisfaction its number-one priority. In order to design the kind of infrastructure necessary to answer that call, the carrier revisited its e-commerce capabilities about 18 months ago, according to Ascenzo.

When planning got underway, EDS was already a partner in the process, according to Ascenzo. "We included EDS in the team at the very beginning when we were designing the architecture to go through the selection process of the different vendors, products and services so they were already up to speed and putting together their own game plan," he says. "That allowed them to ready themselves, as opposed to being handed a list of requirements and saying 'How fast can you do this?'"

BCBSMA had selected Pegasystems (Cambridge, MA) for the CRM capability that was to power BlueServeConnect, with IBM's MQ Series and SeeBeyond (Monrovia, CA) for integration between Pegasus' workflow engine and the carrier's legacy systems. EDS performed integration tasks and built Web-hosting environments for both testing and production.

Alignment of incentives was key to the initiative. EDS committed to "a very aggressive date," that BCBSMA set, Ascenzo says. "However, we put in an incentive so that if they could deliver earlier we would pay them more." The result was that, with EDS's help, "we implemented an industrial-strength architecture in six months."

That infrastructure has enabled BCBSMA to move from what Ascenzo calls a "departmental organizational approach" to service to a "robust, non-siloed informational capability," for customer interaction. "With our values of teamwork and information sharing," he says, "we have accomplished something that others have found very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve."



Senior Vice President and CIO, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts

BACKGROUND: "My formal education, and my love, is marketing," Ascenzo says. After spending some time in retail, Ascenzo went on to an 18-year stint in IT at Aetna. He later became a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers before moving on to BCBSMA in October 2000.

HOBBIES/INTERESTS: Gardening, music, golf, the Boston Red Sox.

DREAM JOB: Landscaping

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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