October 5, 2011 – The pejorative “oil and water” adage that has been applied over the years to the relationship between insurance IT and the business faded even further to the background yesterday as three insurance professionals discussed the positives of having experienced both roles.

The panel discussion occurred at the 2011 Property Casualty Insurers Association of America’s Information Technology Conference in Charlotte, N.C., where close to 150 insurance IT professionals are gathering this week.

R. Scott Eisdorfer, Navigators Insurance, Rob Robison, Alfa Life Insurance Company and Carl Witkowski, GUARD Insurance Group agreed to explain their respective journeys from IT management to their present responsibilities.

Robison, now serving as SVP and Loan Operations at Alfa, has a lengthy tenure in IT, having been responsible for the strategic management and oversight of Alfa’s information systems for many years. “We work and live in a turbulent climate, and in an extremely competitive environment,” Robison said. “You never really leave that technology background; and that plays forward to creating differentiators in our industry.”

For Robison, that meant once he was on the business side, doing the best possible job possible of communicating the value of IT to the business and vice versa. “It really relates to a big ‘we,’ and technology makes the difference.”

Eisdorfer also served in a number of information technology positions over the bulk of his career. Joining Navigators in 1999 his current role is that of SVP and chief administrative officer, he previously served as VP and applications manager of General Reinsurance Corp.

Now firmly entrenched on the business side, Eisdorfer noted that when it comes to achieving corporate objectives, having experience in both worlds helps. When his company wanted to launch a new business initiative but didn’t have the technology in place, Eisdorfer suggested that rather than kill the project, they put manual processes into place that would enable the initiative to go forward while the technology was being created to manage it.

“It helped that I had mentors along the way,” Eisdorfer said. “When I was a young programmer, I was told ‘you are an insurance guy that happens to work in the IT department.’ To this day, I appreciate this viewpoint, because I am a person constantly thinking about solutions that affect the organization. Technology in this perspective becomes the enabler.”

Witkowski, COO, EVP at GUARD Insurance Group, agreed. “Not everything has to be whiz, boom, bang,” he said. “I’ve learned from working in both areas that there is a people factor, partnerships and other issues to consider when trying to push a project along.”

Witkowski joined GUARD in 1996 after working with the organization for nearly a decade as a consultant. His background includes weaving technology with improved business processes to reduce paper, move the company’s information systems to a browser-based platform and creating service centers for agents and policyholders.

“We value technology, but don’t want it to be a choke-hold,” he added. “In our case, we built teams that could better collaborate, bring solutions and partners to the table and build a technology advantage.”

Witkowski attributes his current philosophy to being comfortable in his own skin, and learning early how the company made money. “Who is your primary customer and how can you make a difference [using technology],” he asked. “From there, you develop your strategy. This is not a technology decision so much as it’s a business decision that brings value to the customer relationship.”

The three business executives agreed that the transition from IT to a business role wasn’t entirely smooth sailing.

“I was expecting an ‘ah-ha’ moment, but instead, it was an ‘oh-oh” moment,” said Robison. “I found myself with responsibilities that were much broader than I initially thought. As a result, it took a long time to get my arms around all of the facets of our business.”

For Eisdorfer, leaving IT behind was more difficult than he expected. “It’s still difficult to give things up, because I still feel I could add value in certain areas,” he said. “But you need to give people room to grow and magically, they do. What I’ve learned is that it’s important to ask if what you are doing will make the organization better. Then you pick your spots.”

Witkowski described his first six months in his new job as kind of a litmus test. “Senior management would ask me, ‘does it really take this long for IT to do something?’ My background in IT helped manage those expectations.”

Now firmly entrenched in their businesses, the three executives concur that their value to their respective organizations has been enhanced by their past experience in IT.

“I think we’d all agree that you want IT to engage so we can ask the right questions and learn more about the ‘why’ of these objectives,” Robison concluded.

This story originally appeared on Insurance Networking News.

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