The drive to leverage big data and analytics effectively has never been higher in the insurance industry, and it’s only getting more crucial. As chief data officer of one of the world’s largest insurance companies, Italy’s Generali Group, Elena Rasa is keenly aware of that fact, and is working to create a standard for insurance data excellence not just in Europe, but worldwide as well.

“We realized that the other companies especially in the U.S. were looking into the data science component to make sure they had business decisions based on fact,” she says. “So we decided to set up our own business intelligence and data mining unit.”

Rasa began building the data organization from scratch last year, after receiving the charge from the company’s CEO, Mario Greco. The former head of the P&C business set out to outlined the mission for the soon-to-be-created data science team and established the key performance indicators to measure success.

From there, it was about assembling the right stable of talent.

“To build the data science team, we decided to look inside the Generali group to make sure we had the best people coming aboard from all the countries in the group,” she says. “We had people coming from all over the world. We ran a huge recruiting campaign, with a very tough entrance test, and in the end we were able to recruit about 20 people around the world — all languages in our group were represented.”

Rasa says that learning the breadth of what’s possible with new technologies is a key part of her charge as well. She has surrounded herself with veterans from the technology industry, including people from Microsoft. Like many innovators, Generali takes a fast-fail approach to putting projects into production and evaluating their efficacy, knowing they can always make changes later. Rasa’s team has already launched 22 initiatives since it was formed.

“With all the different technologies we have available, [the team] can make as many mistakes as they need to,” she says. “If they make a mistake, they try again until we get the right result, something that was not the case a few years ago.”

Like many data leaders across the insurance industry, Rasa sees the potential for insurers to be bigger risk-management partners to all their clients, citing Generali’s acquisition of the telematics company MyDrive last year as an example. MyDrive offers a mobile app for driver coaching in addition to more traditional usage-based insurance scoring and metrics for insurers.

Rasa also worked on Internet of Things initiatives during her stint as head of the P&C business, developing a way to incorporate sensor data into pricing decisions.

“My dream was to be part of a pharmaceutical company at the beginning of my career, because I thought that’s where statistics belonged,” she says, adding that she felt that “insurance tended to be conservative and traditional so it’s hard to propose different approaches.” However, she is proud that her career has allowed her to be flexible and innovative with the possibilities of data.

Rasa is an active participant in a formal mentoring program for female executives within Generali. She currently works with the CFO of the company’s Ireland unit, as well as the head of the its life insurance business in Austria.

The main issue most women have in the business, she says, is a deferential tendency at tough times.

“Many times I see that women are not willing to move ahead. They tend to be shy and reserved,” she says.

Her goal is to help women have “good relationships with themselves,” she explains. “It’s about acquiring more confidence to be able to deal with difficult men or women.”

(This article appears courtesy of our sister publication, Insurance Networking News)

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