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Global Technology Exemplar

As CTO of AXA Financial, the subsidiary that supports AXA's retail, wholesale and product manufacturing business, Don Buskard supplies long-term technology vision, as well as supervising the firm's day-to-day information services and infrastructure.

An ability to leverage an information infrastructure globally has enhanced the competitiveness of Paris-based AXA Group. As CTO of AXA Financial (New York, $483 billion in assets), the subsidiary that supports AXA's retail, wholesale and product manufacturing business, Don Buskard supplies long-term technology vision, as well as supervising the firm's day-to-day information services and infrastructure. Among his priorities are project management and speed-to-market.

I&T: What kind of technological collaboration occurs among you and your non-US counterparts?

Don Buskard: We do benefit from the collaborative environment that's been created within AXA Financial, but a lot of the benefit really flows from the US out. For much of the newer technology initiatives, particularly the Internet-based ones, we're a kind of model for many of the companies around the world. Our desire is to be able to reuse as much as we can around the world within the technology part of the company. We also create what we call centers of excellence, or best-practices centers, where we can share something that's not an actual deliverable or solution, but rather a way we do things. Here in our North American data center, we're supporting AXA companies in Canada and Japan by a kind of "insourced-outsource" arrangement, so we've actually begun leveraging our information infrastructure around the world.

I&T: How has technology spending fared at AXA in the wake of the dot-com bust and the general economic downturn?

Buskard: Since September 11, we've had more of a focus on product development, for example, less on more research-oriented types of projects. Projects you see getting approved now have quantifiable benefits and are heavily focused on bringing new product to market, because that's one of our key strategic focuses. We have done some cost-containment, cost-cutting-type measures. We have not had dramatic changes in our budget, but we're not increasing spending at this point. We're in the five- to 10-percent reduction range and our general reaction has been to do a little bit more with a little bit less.

I&T: Do you formally enforce shorter turnarounds for project implementation?

Buskard: In general, we have had a practice of structuring everything except our very largest projects into six- to nine-month deliverables. There can be multi-year projects, but there's got to be realizable benefit at different stages along the way. It's almost a necessity, when you're doing ROI calculations, because a project would have to be tremendously profitable to be able to handle a multi-year, up-front negative cashflow-with no positive benefit, and to have the benefit start accruing at the end of that multi-year project. In our industry now, with the product structured the way the consumers want, they want product to come to market quickly, and therefore we want to start to realize the benefit quickly, as opposed to taking multiple years to try and design the perfect product, by which time the market has shifted.

I&T: As we approach the anniversary of September 11, 2001, what has changed at your New York offices or in your approach to disaster recovery, business continuity and security measures in general?

Buskard: While we weren't remiss before the event, we've enhanced our ability to handle site drills, which we practice now very regularly. Also, attention to these concerns is not just required of business heads, but runs from the chief executive down. We've also refined our business continuity plan to indicate places outside of Manhattan to go to in the event of an emergency, right down to the the level of the individual employee. Regarding security, we have a refreshed view internally to make sure everyone has the proper access to do their job, but no more than that. Within that context we've gotten much more stringent with regard to internal building security, on issues such as distributing ID cards to non-employees. There is also a refreshed view with regard to our employees' safety, making sure they are briefed with regard to fire exits, etc. We felt the hot site arrangements we had in place on September 11 were effective and efficient, so we don't have any changes planned, though we constantly reexamine our arrangements.

I&T: AXA has enjoyed success with portal applications using templates and reusable components. What portals have you developed and what are some of the advantages of the approach you took?

Buskard: The portals we've created include, which is our corporate-branded Web site for all of AXA Financial in the US. It's a site that has been developed for the clients—our policyholders, field associates and the public in general. is a portal for our sales associates. We also developed our intranet for employee information needs, and AXA, to support our wholesale distribution.

Right from the start we designed our initial Web portal to be able to enable as much reuse as possible. What we are trying to do through our design approach is to be as flexible as possible with the use of components, and with templating we are trying to make as much of the Internet portal as possible able to be updated directly by our business users. If that can be accomplished with minimal IT intervention, it ensures that we have very fast time to market when a business user has requirements to update a portal. We take advantage of portal technology by customizing it based on who the user is when registering. Though there is some general public information available on the portal, the registration capability allows us to tailor the portal to meet the specific user's unique needs.

I&T: What emerging technologies do you project will have the greatest impact on the insurance industry in the next two to five years?

Buskard: I think toward the far end of that range, biometrics is a technology that will come to the fore in the insurance industry for its utility for privacy and security. With the confluence of the advancing technology, privacy needs of customers and sales associates and the security needs of employees in the corporation, biometrics will allow all to meet in a good middle ground. For example, in the voice world, if you can just call up and say your name and we can certify who you are without measures such as passwords and PINs, that will go a long way to helping customers feel that we're offering state-of-the-art security-which I think is important if you do business in the financial world. It will also serve the need for privacy, in that customers can be assured that no one can get access to their information unless their voiceprint matches or whatever types of biometric security we choose to implement.

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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