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12:59 PM
Nathan Golia
Nathan Golia
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How Allstate Shed Stodgy Reputation in Favor of Innovation

Changing the culture of the insurer was a challenge worth taking on, executives said — and social media helped.

Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate has always had certain organizational strengths. But for too long, Linda Lampe, innovation manager for Allstate Financial said at the ACORD/LOMA forum in Orlando this week, innovation was not one of them.

"Let's face it — we're really good with data, for example, but we need to put that muscle into innovating every day," she said.

Lampe and Nick Suizzo, lead management consultant for enterprise innovation, detailed how Allstate decided it needed to become a more innovative organization, and how its methods for encouraging creativity have evolved. In 2007, the company opened its Innovation Lab, which allowed any employee to come in and submit an idea.

"A person would come in, sit with an innovation expert, write the idea on a sticky note and put it on the window. Others could come in and comment, and move them into the business areas where they were applicable," Suizzo explained.

[Read how Allstate's top technology executive, Suren Gupta, supports its innovation mandate.]

The problem? It worked too well. "Employees came and dropped off tons of ideas," he added. "It became too cumbersome of a process for a six-person team, and the business units weren't ready to absorb these ideas at the rate we were bringing them."

Social media offered a way to keep the community feel of the initiative live while making it easier to organize ideas, Suizzo said. Allstate worked with Spigit (Pleasanton, Calif.) to build the Innovation Engine, a social platform on which ideas can be submitted and receive feedback from across the enterprise — even at the highest levels.

"Understanding that executives don't have time to look at hundreds of ideas, the tool can stratify and the community can stratify and get the top ideas," Suizzo said. "Subject matter experts contribute in helping the ideas move up and down in the tool. There's a number of metrics that go along with that — how may page views an idea has gotten, for example."

Allstate discovered that the innovative power of its organization was even greater than it had thought. An early innovation challenge resulted in finding out that three employees, separately, came up with the idea for a Facebook video contest around life insurance.

"We've learned as we've gone through this process that as a large organization there area a lot of areas that are trying to tackle the same thing," Suizzo says. "We can achieve economies of scale in problem solving."

The insurer rewards employees whose ideas make it through the process to implementation with a private screening of the innovation-focused TED conference, with the goal of encouraging those employees to continue down their path of innovative thinking.

"By getting this deluge of ideas you haven't heard before from various sectors, you approach your job differently," Lampe says. "If you're looking at customer service, why not see what Zappos or Disney are doing?"

[Read how insurance companies have modeled themselves after online retailers.]

But encouraging employees to put themselves out there for a potential let down isn't easy — in fact, Suizzo says it's one of the biggest challenges the innovation group has. Transparency about the process is key to solving this problem, he adds.

"We try to frame the conversation with the employees who have ideas that we aren't moving forward with in terms of options," he says. "Good ideas that are outside the scope of the exercise will persist in this [social] space. You may have to wait until the business unit is solving the problem this solution answers."

Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio

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