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Management Strategies

01:03 PM
Frank Petersmark, X by 2
Frank Petersmark, X by 2

Why Working in Insurance IT is Like Running Detroit

Many of the problems that have led to the city's financial demise were the result of short-sighted decision-making. In many ways this reminds me of what happens in some IT divisions within insurance companies.

There's a dubious Chinese proverb that one way to seek vengeance on an enemy was to bestow upon them the ironic curse of "May you live in interesting times." (In fact, the saying is most likely of American origin from the first part of the twentieth century.)

Many of you may have noticed that Detroit has been having some of its own interesting times of late, to put it mildly. I was born in the city and still live in a city that shares a border with Detroit. Many of the problems that have led to the city's financial demise were the result of short-sighted decision-making that ignored larger socio-economic trends such as the shrinking manufacturing base in the city and region, and the exodus of people from the city to the greener pastures of the suburbs.

Frank Petersmark
Frank Petersmark, X by 2

In many ways this reminds me of what happens in some IT divisions within insurance companies.

Many carriers continue to pay the technological price for making short-term decisions on systems and platforms that may have even addressed some problem – functionality, expense, market presence, etc. But these short-term fixes ignored the big picture and led to some real long-term pain in terms of support, expense, and flexibility.

And like Detroit, some IT divisions often make those decisions worse by putting the blinders on and adopting a bunker-like mentality to the point where they are unable to recognize what is happening around them – both within and outside of their own organizations.

I've been around long enough to remember the 'Us vs. Them' or 'IT vs. Everybody' mentalities that existed throughout the industry. In Detroit in fact, a cottage industry has grown around the slogan 'Detroit vs. Everybody.' And while much of that has gone by the wayside (in IT, that is), thanks in large part to the outsourcing trends of several years ago, the perception that this sort of mentality still exists is troublesome for the industry.

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The strategic push for IT alignment with the business from a few years ago was an effort to try to rectify these perceptions. For a number of years, the number-one strategic and operational objective in the annual planning cycle of every respectable IT division was to become better aligned with their business colleagues and their objectives, whatever that meant.

There was a sort of artificiality to that, much like when Detroit attempted to embrace its suburban neighbors by declaring that the city was open for business – even when crime was running rampant and city services were subpar. The results were often the same for IT divisions as they were for Detroit – despite the invitations nobody came.

The lesson here for IT divisions at insurance companies is an important one: it takes more than just saying you want to do something, even if it is written down in a plan.

The invitations and declarations by the political leaders of the city of Detroit were insincere and for political consumption only because the city leaders never followed those words with the actions required to make them really ring true. So it has been--and in some cases still is--with IT divisions, who created alignment strategies as a political expediency. Those words were barely worth the paper they were written on if the IT leadership didn't follow them up with concrete and sustainable actions and behaviors that modeled what the words about alignment represented.

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Sadly, that was true in many instances. And those are the IT divisions that are still struggling with their business relationships such that if they don't find a way to make the necessary course corrections, they may find themselves in the IT equivalency of bankruptcy, as Detroit has.

Declare "Bankruptcy"

However, much like with Detroit, there is hope. For those IT divisions that have somehow not shed their barricade-the-walls mentality, now is the time to do so. If it's too difficult to do so internally based upon entrenched experiences, attitudes, and perspectives, then one way to do it might be to follow Detroit's lead and, in IT terms, declare bankruptcy.

And what would that look like? Well, it would look like an acknowledgement from the IT (and hopefully business) leadership, that for whatever the reasons IT has become disconnected from effectively fulfilling its mission to the organization. IT leadership recognizes the situation, and wants to do something about it. That something could be just like what happened in Detroit – bringing in a powerful outsider who doesn't carry all the political baggage as all the incumbents do, and charging that person with bringing the appropriate parties together to craft a viable and sustainable plan going forward.

It's still a painful process, but having an arbiter involved allows people to get past their reluctance to do anything at all. That way it's a matter of getting on the bus or being left behind, for both IT and the business.

Speaking of buses, they're still not running on time in Detroit, but they are getting closer.

About the author: Frank Petersmark is the CIO Advocate at X by 2, a technology consulting company in Farmington Hills, Mich., specializing in software and data architecture and transformation projects for the insurance industry. As CIO Advocate, he travels the country meeting CIOs and other senior IT and business executives at insurers, learning about their goals and frustrations, sharing lessons learned, and offering strategic counsel. Formerly Chief Information Officer and Vice President of information technology at Amerisure Mutual Insurance Company, Frank has more 30 years' experience as an information technology professional and executive.

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