Much of the CIO panel discussion that closed out this year’s PCI Technology Conference in San Antonio revolved around what Jim Albert, CIO of Bankers Financial Corporation, described as “challenging the perception that IT is a roadblock to success.”

This task is made daunting by many common challenges facing IT units looking to modernize business operations. And the message from Becky Nash, SVP at Ameriprise Auto & Home Insurance, was that this is a problem no matter how long an insurer has been investing in innovative technology.

For example, American Family is currently trying to find a cost-feasible solution to the challenge of offering multiple platforms for policyholders. “We were one of the early companies binding policies online; by 2002 we were binding auto policies online and by 2007, binding home owners policies online,” Nash said. “The good thing is we got it early, the bad thing is we got it early. In an ironic sense, we have something of a legacy system with our online systems.”

American Family’s model centers around captive agents, but first with contact centers and now with the Web, there’s was internal pressure to copy the GEICOs and Progressives with online capabilities, explained James Madden, I/S Shared Services AVP, American Family Insurance, and the third member of the panel.

“One thing is people try to lead with technology but they don’t understand that it’s a people process, and a lot of agents get very nervous. So how do you marry those two together?” Beyond that, Madden went on to explain, there are a lot of different possible customer interactions that agents are paid to handle, so which of those points of contact are worth opening up to an emerging channel or a contact center, which are very expensive options to offer consumers.

Albert countered with a successful big data project Bankers conducted to keep agents happy, motivated and bringing in more business.

“We thought it’d be a novel idea to ask our independent agents what they thought of us, and we found that the no. 1 reason they like doing business with us is not our prices, services packaging or customer service; it was simply ease of doing business,” he said. “We decided to do a big data project. We pre-rated a few million homes based on internal and external data, and used that information to see where we’d be profitable and where agents should go advertise and sell.”

This mixed effort between the insurance business line and BI, which is inside the IT organization, made life very easy for agents, according to Albert, who had a targeted area to focus on and bring back interested addresses, which the company already had data surrounding. So there was a successful example of business and IT collaboration to keep agents happy while using technology to further business growth, yet, a discussion of the challenges of making the relevant data available to the appropriate people persisted before circling back around to the underlying current of the session: communication.

“It’s really starts with the marketing,” said Madden. “They have the VOC [voice of customer] and manage the brand, so they’re the ones pushing, saying we need to do this. Then we hear our senior leadership wants to do this, so we’ve been trying to force the discussion. It’s trying to get collaboration across the enterprise.”

Jim Albert said that Bankers’ approach to keeping everyone on the same page comes down to the IT budget, but it’s also a way to frame what IT is doing as fueling growth. To achieve this, Bankers split its IT budget into two categories: value creation and business efficiency.

“Those are two very different things. The business efficiency category: I commit to them to shrink it as much as possible. They’re just keeping the lights on,” Albert said. “Value creation is different. It’s measured by how much return comes from every dollar. That started to change the operation. The view is there that IT is part of the solution in accelerating growth.”

the panel also discussed experiences fighting the “heads down, lights on” perception of IT, including governance methods. Methods discussed included getting representatives from every corner of the enterprise into a room and discussing enterprise project management, holding contests to enable teams to compete for cash prizes while solving business problems, targeting small successes championed by volunteers who are wholly responsible for their project’s return, and officer shadowing, where twice a year, officers shadow a ground worker so they have a better awareness and perspective of operational efficiency.

“It’s been a long journey,” Madden said.

Indeed, by the end of the session, with all those ideas buzzing around the minds of the audience, there were three themes linking most of them together: communication, accountability and, of course, persistence.

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