With his unwavering focus on ways in which technology can improve the relationship between customers and insurers, UnumProvident's Bob Best exemplifies the new breed of insurance industry CIO - one who strives to lead the company from a product- and line-of-business-centric orientation to a customer-centric paradigm. But Best is no upstart CIO; he's an insurance industry veteran with 30-plus years of experience in various leadership roles.
Best is moving the $48.5 billion insurer in the customer-centric direction with a "growth engine strategy" that includes folding different lines of business into a common customer operating system. One initiative within the strategy involves redesigning a former Colonial Life customer administration system and connecting it to various surround systems to support broader enterprise customer processes. It's a long-term project that requires "a heavy dose of reengineering and redesign of business processes," Best notes.
The project is paying handsome dividends. "As a very high-volume organization, we have created tremendous value in having a client-oriented administration system," Best explains.
Best says he also focuses on the cultural component of moving the organization toward customer-centricity, noting that a sea change of this magnitude can be problematic not just from a technology perspective. "Getting people to think around common customer processes and solutions versus product-oriented solutions is a challenge. People want to gravitate back" to product-centric ways of thinking, he says. Best describes his role as keeping the company looking forward toward his vision for a customer-focused, simplified IT environment. He wants to enable the business to think differently, he says. "That's the value that we bring."
Because of that contribution, Best believes the role of the CIO will continue to grow in importance throughout the insurance industry. "I don't buy the story that the role of CIO is dead," he asserts. "Nothing happens in any large company without technology and leadership and business skills."
More likely, the role of the CIO will expand, Best suggests. "I do think there is a trend that successful IT executives tend to pick up other responsibilities as well," he continues, citing his own dual role as CIO and head of the client service center as an example. Best was also called on to serve as acting president of the Colonial subsidiary in 2002 when the division's CEO stepped down.
Best's belief in the power of customer-focused technology is evident in other initiatives as well. For example, UnumProvident has one of the most robust imaging and workflow environments in the industry. Developed over the past few years, the Web-enabled i-Services platform is a completely paperless system for benefits administrators (employers) and their employees. A third-party customer satisfaction survey found that employers using the platform are twice as satisfied as employers using more traditional platforms. Best is proud of the system, which has become the de facto company standard. "I don't know how many companies can say that their standard administrative offering for any size client is completely Web-based," he boasts.
May the Force Be With You
Although he has made a big impact on the technology deployed at UnumProvident during his tenure as CIO, Best admits that he is not a techie. He spent the first 15 years of his career in various business areas before landing in IT, bringing his business background and a penchant for accountability to the CIO role. But Best readily acknowledges his debt to the technology experts. "I have a deep appreciation for the more technical people because I rely on them very highly. I'm a big believer that you need an organization that complements you," he remarks.
He also has a deep appreciation for good leadership skills. UnumProvident's IT staff is mostly housed in its corporate headquarters, which are located in both Chattanooga, Tenn., and Portland, Maine. Those cities might not be the most obvious destinations for ambitious technologists, but the organization still is able to attract and retain top technology talent. Best points to the leadership team in place as part of the reason IT staff come and stay.
"People are attracted to strong leaders. We have a group of leaders who complement each other, have a sense of humility, but are also results-oriented and energetic," Best says. "If you don't have talented leadership and employee teams, then nothing else matters."
Putting that leadership team in place after the 1999 Unum/Provident merger took more than a year and a half. But, while mergers are difficult and challenging, they do permit a company to assemble the best people from different sources and blend a refined management team, according to Best.
It's natural that, throughout such a lengthy insurance career, Best has faced his share of IT challenges. For example, he served as Provident's CIO during Y2K - at the same time the company was merging with Unum Corp. But rather than shudder when he thinks back on those times, Best reflects on them somewhat fondly. "In a cruel way, it was kind of fun because you got to work with different people and see how different companies do things and try to bring the best out of the companies together," he reflects.
Asked what he believes is the key to success, Best opines that one has to cover the grassroots basics of the CIO job: leadership, collaboration, business acumen and an understanding of what the business and customers need. "It's important for me to keep grounded in customer requirements and business needs and provides linkage from the IT organization back to the business," he says.