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11:57 PM
Kathy Burger
Kathy Burger
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Mad Men, Insurance and Change

A metaphor-filled episode of the show about advertising in the '60s has relevance for a transforming insurance industry.

I'm a huge fan of Mad Men, and the May 4 episode of the TV series about advertising executives and their families (and secretaries) really resonated with me. The main plot line involved the installation of a huge IBM 360 computer at the Sterling Cooper and Partners agency -- an event that delighted the agency's number crunchers and unnerved or angered the creative team members, not least because their lounge was appropriated to house the new computer. There was confusion about what the 360 actually could do, bland promises from management about the benefits of the new machine, anxiety about job security, and jargon from the technician charged with the installation.

Yes, it all stood as a metaphor for change in the advertising business and for uncertainty in the main characters' lives. It also seemed like an apt recap of how computerization started to change the business world in the late 1960s. It even included a not-so-subtle slam at Big Blue's long-time pricing and product development strategies. And it was coincidentally but eerily well timed to air the first night of the 2014 -- and final -- ACORD LOMA Insurance Systems Forum.

ACORD has confirmed what many in the industry had expected since last year's disappointing Insurance Systems Forum: The 11-year ACORD/LOMA event partnership is coming to an end. ACORD announced the launch of a new event, ACORD2015, which will take place at the Boca Raton Resort and Club Nov. 2-4, 2015. It will build on the standards organization's ACORD Implementation Forum. LOMA, meanwhile plans to add a technology track to its Life Insurance Conference.

Historic changes in the ways insurance professionals are able to obtain information, engage with each other and purchase technology had steadily weakened the ACORD/LOMA conference, which at one time had arguably been the dominant insurance tech trade show. With an explosion of digital and live event alternatives, it became harder for both insurance execs and tech companies to justify participation in the show. Given the growth of the ACORD Implementation Forum, it's reasonable to hope that the new event ACORD2015 will engage industry members and be successful.

The fate of the Insurance Systems Forum shows that while industry upheaval may have been a shocking concept to the Sterling Cooper and Partners encountering the IBM 360 in 1969, it's becoming a way of life in our business. "When change outside your organization outpaces change within the organization, the end is near," said ACORD LOMA opening session speaker Murli Buluswar, AIG's chief science officer, describing the circumstances around his hiring, which came while AIG was still recovering from its near-demise in the wake of the financial crisis.

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Buluswar has built a 125-person team (most of whom have not come from within the insurance industry) whose members "have a common passion to drive change." When hiring, he looks "for intellectual curiosity and a passion for evidence-based decision-making." Buluswar also is committed to making sure that his team's work at AIG "will be the most memorable chapter in their lives."

Key attributes, he says, are "creativity, resilience [and] an ability to teach and learn," adding, "I'm not interested in recruiting people who want to be experts. It's not about what you know but how you learn."

This strikes me as a radically different way of approaching business challenges, and is a particularly dramatic example of how far the insurance industry has come since the days of the IBM 360. At the same time, let's not forget that insurance was one of the first industries to embrace automation. The success of AIG's data scientists suggest that we could be embarking on an equally transformational era. Change will not be an option but an ongoing mandate.

Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & Technology in 1991. In addition to ... View Full Bio

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