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How is Insurance Technology Like Downton Abbey?

The great English house is a legacy system embedded in an institution with a history of hostile takeover. Its survival depends on accessing new talent and reorienting itself to understand its mission from an outside-in perspective.

The enormous popularity of PBS series Downton Abbey has evidently penetrated to the halls of insurance technology strategy. In a LinkedIn Group called Information Technology in Insurance, Chet Gladowski of Chet Glad Enterprises asks how one might one compare the great English house to the world of insurance technology. My first thought was that you could call Downton Abbey a legacy system — literally as well as figuratively — struggling to cope with changes in the world around it.

The institution's survival requires a rethinking of roles and attitudes. Technology organizations, like great houses, have their hierarchies, but they need to access the insight and talent where they find it — be it the metaphorical middle-class relative or even the chauffeur. But perhaps there's a greater analogy in the hierarchy of functions than of authority. There was a time when the Lord would never have thought in terms of Downton's utility to the community as a provider of employment, rather than simply thinking that the estate's tenants and servitors owed their daily bread to their lord and protector. Similarly, insurance companies are using technology to reorient themselves on an outside-in basis, reordering their capabilities and emphasizing the front of the house. And of course Downton Abbey has a great lesson about legacy systems and the inevitability of change embedded in its name, which bespeaks a hostile takeover. Have you asked yourself why a noble family is living in an Abbey? The only reason would be that it was seized by Henry VIII with the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-1500s, to be given to his cronies as spoil.

[Read about how to solve legacy through ACM — architecture for continuous migration: What Matters in IT: the Power to Change.]

While Henry was a tyrant, somewhat more democratic processes analogous to the dissolution of the monasteries were happening on the European continent because monks had become fat, dumb and happy, as the expression goes. They took their status for granted and many observers believed that they exploited their material benefits beyond the justification of their place in society. In fact, there remained monastic houses that fulfilled an important spiritual role in their communities, but a sufficient number had created an opportunity for, shall we say, non-traditional competitors to exploit negative public opinion against the monks.

The Downton Abbey of the Crawley family faces similar threats, narrowly escaping the fate of Glen Eagles which, like Inveraray Castle, the actual structure portrayed, succumbed to changing economic realities and had to seek charity to preserve the building. Lord Grantham — and every insurance executive — could benefit from Edmund Burke's advice to statesmen: "A State without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation."

There are no doubt many more analogies to draw, and I hope we might see one or two in the comments. Check out Chet's thoughtful and YouTube rant (spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the final episode!) on the Downton Abbey analogy to insurance technology:

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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