Toronto-based life insurer Manulife has embraced the digitalization of the insurance business with the launch of its Vitality wellness program across North America, the opening of several innovation labs worldwide and more. The company's chief information officer, Greg Framke, is working with teams across the company on updating the 130-year-old company's processes to embrace the possibilities of the digital age.

A Wall Street veteran — by way of Morgan Stanley and E-trade — appointed last January, Framke says that his experience on that side of the financial services industry yielded many best practices and lessons that the insurance industry can benefit from. The following is an edited version of a conversation between Framke and Digital Insurance associate editor Danni Santana.


Digital Insurance: What attracted you to the insurance industry?

Greg Framke: My whole career has been financial services. I have one foot in this understanding of systems of records and kind of that whole model of computing, and then my other foot is squarely in the way you would build e-commerce platforms that are customer facing and take advantage of big data and all the other great buzzwords in our industry. I have absolutely no insurance background. But the way you want to architect, build and deliver products to customers and the way you interact with customers using technology is the same. So insurance, retail brokerage, whatever, you know, for me it’s fairly generic. I also was impressed that the company [Manulife] has a lot of really smart people that are very committed to change, and I think in some cases they’re just looking to figure out how.

Wealth and health are two areas that we can’t avoid as consumers. And we have an equal desire to avoid them somehow because they’re hard, they’re complicated, So I see these are two great problems that everybody in the world would like to solve for, and somebody’s going to figure out how to deliver a consumer proposition that is compelling around these things. It might as well be a company like Manulife, and I would like to be a part of that.


DI: What are some of the challenges in overseeing an insurance business?

Framke: Two observations. One is that some insurance products you place, and then you never interact with somebody again until they need something or some event happens. So I think insurance companies generally struggle with what we do in between. I think that’s a fundamental insurance conundrum, like how do we interact with people who we traditionally don’t.

The other observation is that an insurance company balance sheet is ungodly. I’m getting a Master’s class in insurance company balance sheets, and I’m not sure I’ll surface on this one for a while.

I think we’re kind of heavily indexed on planning versus execution, and we probably need to be balanced the other way. We need to find the right balance for this company. I think we could probably get 50/50, which would be a good place for me.

DI: Manulife has been very busy in the last year. How would you characterize the company’s current tech strategy?

Framke: We are evolving from what has traditionally been a little bit of a business unit focused, product focused set of businesses. Now, what’s happening is the businesses are starting to say, “Well, maybe this construct of silo business unit teams that are product focused [needs to change and] we need to start thinking about customers.” Regardless of how you interact with us, we want you to have a broad experience. And that’s where we’re evolving to, and I would suggest on business levels we’re starting to think more and more this way.


DI: We see a lot of initiatives not only in the U.S. and Canada but also in Singapore. How does the Asian market compare to the North American market?

Framke: If you think about a typical consumer [in Asia], they will compare us with things like WeChat [a Chinese mobile-messaging service with nearly 1 billion users]. So we cannot look like a 130-year-old company doing business across a mass scale of consumers. In many ways Asian technology will lead us, and that’s good because the way we think in Asia around technology is the way that we will think about technology everywhere eventually. And it’s not that we’re not doing things in North America, we are, but there are some demands in Asia, like mobile; everything’s going mobile. And that’s not always true elsewhere.


DI: You say technology in Asia will lead you, in what way?

Framke: How we do mobile around the world. The ability for us to get mobile apps out fast and get them out cheaply will depend on us building up a code base that we’re sharing. From an architecture point of view, Asia’s kind of already there. We don’t have the exact same [mobile] demands in North America, believe it or not.


DI: What are your long-term goals at the company?

Framke: Well, what I really want to accomplish is building a technology organization that is delivering the best customer experience, tools and products in the industry. I want my competitors to be going “What are those guys doing over there?”

And I’ll go back to wealth and health. If we can make it relatively simple and deliver it in a compelling way, we win. So I don’t know what that means for technology. I know the kinds of technologies we’re going to have to be good at and deploy. But from the business point of view, that’s success.


DI: Any accomplishments so far you want to highlight?

Framke: I think we are having a really great conversation among our global technology organization around how we’re going to do this together. And I’d say we’re probably 70% to 90% of the way along that conversation which is pretty good given standing start, We’ve got proof of concepts, and we’ve got environments and tools. And once we start scaling, we’ll be pumping out products, features, tools like no tomorrow.


DI: What are some of the key trends you’re seeing in the industry?

Framke: Well, they tend to be more around the wealth space. It’s a place that I know a little bit more than insurance. I think what’s interesting for me is not so much the robo-advisor stuff, because that’s kind of been around for a while and it’s kicking around. But how we think about delivering a really robust advice set of experiences, service and product in a mass-consumer kind of way.

The concept would be how you supplement what we do through advisors, which is by definition limiting. There are only so many advisors in the world, there’s only so many we’re willing to hire, and there’s only so many customers they can interact with.

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