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Evangelist and Educator

The challenge of learning about - and tapping - technology's capabilities helps make the CIO job fun for Northwestern Mutual's Barbara Piehler.

At a time when insurance distribution is increasingly fragmented and many carriers are shifting to an independent-agent model, Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual is more committed than ever to its captive sales and distribution organization. As the firm's senior vice president - information systems and chief information officer, Barbara F. Piehler is intent on helping those representatives succeed.

"We need to enable our financial representatives and field management to be able to form lasting relationships with policy owners and customers. Whatever we do from a business and technology sense is done for the benefit of the policy owner," she explains. "The field force is so very important to what we do. We look at them as our partners to make what we do happen."

Known officially as the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, the distribution arm consists of 7,900 representatives who provide clients access to products from Northwestern Mutual's family of companies, including life, disability income and long-term care insurance, annuities, mutual funds and other investment products. The foundation of Piehler's efforts to support the distribution network is called Field Technology Vision, created about five years ago to drive improvements in areas such as productivity, communications and service. "We're making this a holistic view, from accessing customer information, to prospecting, to helping close a sale, to [managing] portfolios," she explains.

Change Agent

Emphasizing that "This wasn't about [just] building the technology, but also communicating the benefits," Piehler acknowledges that getting representatives to change the ways in which they operate has not been a simple process. However, undertaking this kind of education and culture change is all in a day's work for her. Piehler credits her diverse experience at Northwestern Mutual, which has included stints in finance and customer service as well as e-business and IT, with helping her bridge the gap.

"I come with a very good background on what the business does and how it makes a living," she acknowledges, stressing that the IT organization must meet the following challenges: "What can we do to help the business move forward? How can we help them think creatively?" Ultimately, Piehler notes, "We can help them solve problems - that's what's fun."

Fun notwithstanding, Piehler takes these responsibilities very seriously. "Numbers do mean something to me," she says. "I'm a big piece of what happens in this company. We [in IT] want to be viewed as an indispensable business partner. There isn't much this company can do without technology, so we are teaching the business about technology: What is infrastructure, what are operating systems, what kind of hardware do we run, how do all these pieces work, what do we have at Northwestern Mutual?"

The education process doesn't stop with the troops. Piehler emphasizes that a key factor in her success has been her ability to embrace the new and unfamiliar. "I'm an accountant by background. I learned something every day that I didn't think I would learn, much less care about. So it is fun for me to learn about technology," she says. "The biggest challenge for me is learning the power of technology and what it can do."

At the same time, "The most fun part of what I do is seeing people be successful," Piehler declares. "People are important to this organization, and I want them to feel that they have opportunities in the company. We work very hard not just on the nuts-and-bolts training but also the soft skills, such as how to work with the business, or communications." Additionally, there's coaching on "What are the next technologies coming down the pike that I'm going to need people to understand," Piehler adds.

The Legacy Puzzle

Piehler's orientation toward numbers has served her well in what has become one of the biggest on-the-job challenges for many insurance CIOs: managing budgets, resources and partner and vendor relationships.

Northwestern Mutual's technology environment - in which 40 percent of the $275 million IT budget is earmarked for development work and "projects for the business" - is a mix of in-house developed systems, off-the-shelf packages and partner (outsourcing) relationships, including 30-year-old-plus legacy administration systems (the company bought its first IBM mainframe in 1957). "They've served us well, and are still working - [so] are we going to replace them lock, stock and barrel?" Piehler asks rhetorically. Currently, she is trying to figure out which options make the most sense going forward. For example, "Do we want to build in the services world and break things apart?" she relates.

"We'd like to start unwinding some of what we have now," Piehler continues. "What's the best way to get us there? This is a big-time strategy discussion: How do we leverage, refine and redesign processes to make us more efficient?"

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Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & Technology in 1991. In addition to ... View Full Bio

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