In the 10 years since Deborah Norton became enterprise-wide CIO at Wellesley, MA-based insurance provider Harvard Pilgrim and its 1 million-plus insured members, much has changed in health insurance – and even more remains undecided.

It was the near-failure and uncertainty of insurance companies in the early part of this century that made Harvard Pilgrim think about future IT flexibility. It was decided that a loosely coupled service oriented architecture, not the “big box” software suites some insurers chose, would best provide this.

Part of the reasoning was that moving from one monolithic architecture to another meant all the lock ins and changes would arrive at once. “The resource draw from business and IT in a big box implementation was just too expensive,” Norton says. “That model says you draw on hard resources for an extended time, you flip a switch and the whole skyscraper lights up – you hope. We needed to continue executing while replacing our legacy environment, and that led to a component strategy.”   

Plus, she realized that legacy hardwired transactional systems had shaped the insurer to technology processes, not the other way around. Norton wasn’t out to invent SOA and looked for other industries that were successful in replacing constrained legacy environments without shuttering the business. The model was banking, where a single building had been replaced by ATMs “that could globally deliver proper currency anywhere and anytime,” says Norton. “People understood that and it became our mental mindset.”

Though the details require more space, Norton says incremental change requires constant attention and is not for the faint of heart. “The downside for the business may be that it never feels we are at the end and you need to manage that.”

Quotable: “I won’t insult our business counterparts by saying it was just one more thing on their plate. They were trying to run a business and absorb change at the same time and it’s a cultural process to accept that it’s not over. But that is a very different experience than, ‘today I am doing these many things and tomorrow everything is different.’”

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