After going public in November 2006, OneBeacon Insurance (Canton, Mass.; $2 billion in annual revenue) focused on reducing its expense ratio -- an objective with obvious consequences for the way the carrier's IT leadership approaches strategic technology development. As OneBeacon increasingly focuses on specialization, however, it is approaching technology investment in a more expansive mode, which suits new CIO Gary Plotkin.
"I wouldn't have taken this job if it was all about cost takeout and finding the last guy to shut off the lights," remarks Plotkin, who succeeds Mike Natan, who retired at the end of February. "I took this job because the company is seeking opportunities for profitable growth; I will look to support the business in a way that is consistent with financial discipline."
Plotkin most recently was CIO of The Hartford's P&C operations, where he supervised line-of-business CIOs and managed the portfolio of the company's large investments in application development. But he depended on a shared infrastructure organization outside the group under his control.
In his new role Plotkin has responsibility for both infrastructure and delivery. And as a member of the senior management team, he is well positioned not only to ensure that IT's voice is heard, but to help influence the course of the business through consulting on the opportunities technology brings. "We expect to begin using innovative techniques, such as Web 2.0 collaboration technologies, to bring IT forward into the visioning and strategy," he comments.
The carrier's growth strategy is largely built on specialty businesses, each with particular needs. Since those needs require spreading IT costs across various business units, it can be challenging to find the best opportunities for return on investment while understanding the true technology costs, according to Plotkin. OneBeacon already enjoys outstanding agent-facing technology, including a single portal for all lines of business, but Plotkin sees the opportunity to drive even more robust technology for the carrier's distribution partners.
Breaking Through the Inertia
Internal customers present additional challenges, partly because they are used to a given way of doing things. Plotkin believes that Web 2.0 approaches can play an important role in breaking through that inertia. "One of the discussions we're having is how our underwriters and underwriting assistants work together; today it's very much directed through the systems," he observes. "But why not allow them to chat, or use cell phones or use other ways to move data back and forth, obviously within regulatory constraints?"
Communications and collaboration technologies will also help to bridge some of the distance in OneBeacon's distributed IT organization. Part of the challenge is to leverage strengths within different parts of the organization without sacrificing focus on the needs of business units, according to Plotkin. "We are looking for opportunities to leverage our existing architecture while also developing superior capabilities," he relates.
To address the physical separation of IT professionals, Plotkin says, OneBeacon's IT organization is using Microsoft Shared Server collaborative technology. "We're not allowing distance to impact our ability to leverage the right people in the right locations," he comments.
During his first 90 days on the job, Plotkin has communicated intensively with his new business partners and has begun to develop a longer-term IT-business road map that projects work over three-year time horizons. "It's understood that the plan provides baselines and that things will change," Plotkin explains. "But within our planning we are bringing IT forward into the strategic vision, with a solid plan that the business can track against."
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