The rapid pace of technological innovation is impacting the insurance industry in fundamental ways. Steady advances in bandwidth, processing power and storage capacity have largely obliterated many data center bottlenecks. Elsewhere, new distribution channels are opening, mobile devices are begetting new business applications (and security challenges) and cloud computing is causing many to rethink the merits of fixed cost structures.

These topics, in myriad permutations, were central to many of the discussions held recently at the Insurance Accounting and Systems Association's 2010 Educational Conference and Business Show in Grapevine, Texas. At sessions I heard social media posited as an elixir for everything from hiring to underwriting. If I had a dollar for every time I heard Google's mobile operating system, Android, mentioned, I'd probably be writing this from my new villa in Croatia.

Yet, today's buzzword, no matter how overused, may be tomorrow's competitive necessity. What's more, the nature of many new technologies means insurers can dip their toe in without a major investment of capital.

A good example of this trend is the increasing pervasive use of analytics. At a panel discussion titled "Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Cool Ways Insurance Companies are Using Modern Technologies," Adam Nordost, VP of information systems at San Diego-based Arrowhead Insurance Group, spoke of the value companies can derive from using Web analytics, including Google's free, eponymous offering. The tools enable insurers to get better grasp of who is accessing their Web portals and how, and also give them a sense of ROI for different products. For example, an insurer that finds that only 10% of hits to its site come from Web searches may want to divert resources away from areas such as search engine optimization. Arrowhead's analytic results for its agents-only Web portal showed the increased use of mobile browsers by agents, and a solitary user accessing the site through other more novel means. "People are actually accessing our Web site through Nintendo Wii game consoles," Nordost said.

The concept of pushing technologies to end users via unconventional means also arose at a separate session concerning analytics, where an analytics program ran on a common laptop using Microsoft Excel as the primary interface. Just as important as the technology was the intended user, said Craig Hoover, VP/CFO at Hudson Crop Insurance. "It's everyday users that run these models; it's not only for math Ph.D.s," he said.

Indeed, the importance of demystifying IT was the sole topic of a separate session where the talk soon turned to the age-old gap between IT and business. While one audience member jokingly suggested that from the vantage point of business, IT was a four-letter word, and the need to reconcile IT capability with business goals deserves serious discussion. A common, business-based vernacular is the first step, said Ron Deskins, VP, IT, at Richmond, Va.-based Markel Insurance Co. "IT people think about themselves as IT people, and that's a problem," he said. "You have to be committed to making your IT staff learn about insurance."

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