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Guardian CIO Peter Atwater Takes Analytical Approach

As CIO of Group Insurance at Guardian Life, Pete Atwater leads by example in fostering an environment where smart innovation is rewarded.

Peter Atwater
Pete Atwater, CIO - Group Insurance for New York-based Guardian Life Insurance ($7.7 billion in 2009 revenue), initially arrived at the University of Tulsa, from where he graduated with a B.S. and M.B.A. in information systems, as a psychology major. So it's not surprising that he understands the value of human capital in driving successful IT departments.

"The project workload is typically the priority, and it's typically very intense. Taking time out of that is not always a first instinct," Atwater says. "It's always a challenge for CIOs and other business leaders to spend enough time to develop their direct reports and ensure that those direct reports develop the people below them as well. The ability to put people in the right jobs and ensure that the teams are engaged and have a good sense of their interaction with the business is important."

True to his ideals, Atwater has a reputation among the 200 employees in Guardian's IT department for being a strong, fair leader. A major part of this, he insists, is putting team members in a position to succeed. When Guardian was looking for ways to manage its IT expenses, for example, Atwater challenged his staff to come up with solutions. As a result, one of the most effective solutions came not from the top down, but from the bottom up, he says.

"One of our developers looked at the way some mainframe systems were working, and by making some changes to just a couple of high-transaction modules in our [custom-built, proprietary] claims system, created some significant headroom in our mainframe that allowed us to defer adding capacity and upgrading it," Atwater explains. "That was a really nice win."

That initiative also demonstrates how attuned Atwater is to the other three areas of challenge, beyond human resources, that he says he has found in all of the IT organizations that he's been a part of: strategy, level of IT spend and the perception of the department. Making sure your objectives as CIO are aligned with the business objectives of the company "sounds trite," Atwater comments, "but it's always challenging, particularly in complex businesses."

He adds, "You need to be agile, flexible and available to support business needs. A lot of the IT work we do supports product development. ... The ability to get products to market quickly is a key driver for us."

By keeping the IT department approachable and aligned with the business objectives of the wider organization, Atwater notes, he hopes to prevent too much "shadow" IT work from being done. Today's non-IT employees have a higher level of technical acumen than in the past, and it can be tempting and easy for these employees to create workarounds that increase business risk in the short term, even if in the long term they can be developed into a workable solution, he asserts.

"In most insurance companies there's a mixed perception of IT," he says. "One of the CIO's jobs is to work to create that view of IT as an enabler, one that creates competitive advantage, whether it's through that call into the help desk or engagement on a business problem."

A Win-Win-Win

Guardian has rolled out a number of online tools over the past year designed to make its offerings clearer and more easily available to its group life clients' employees. Online self-enrollment was kicked off in August 2009 as part of the company's Guardian Anywhere portal. Though originally only renewals could be processed online, recently the capability was extended to new customers as well, Atwater reports. At the same time, he adds, he is leading an initiative to improve the renewal infrastructure and standardize the process across regions so that information about a renewing plan is more accessible to underwriters.

"We're just wrapping up a major period of investment in our platforms to enable a better customer experience," Atwater says. "Online enrollment is a real focus for us. We look at it as a win-win-win for the employee, employer and ourselves."

Among the benefits, according to Atwater, online enrollment reduces the amount of paper in the carrier's system. It also enables the company to better communicate its value proposition and helps increase participation rates, he adds. Smaller companies like it because they might have little or no human resources department, and larger companies expect that their insurance partners will have the capability, Atwater says, explaining that receiving enrollment data electronically allows the company to pre-populate some fields, reduces cycle times and increases accuracy.

Guardian also launched a website for employers and brokers, About Employee Benefits, this year. The site includes proprietary research reports, legislative updates, case studies, interactive tools, videos and tips on simplifying the enrollment process for employees. An extension of that site for consumers, the Life and Disability Insurance Explorer, aims to help employees determine their coverage needs in a post-healthcare reform world.

"We've put a lot of effort into the content we put in front of the employees to make sure its understandable and clear, and we think we have a very good online enrollment offering," Atwater says.

Balancing Act

Many organizations have focused on return on investment recently, and Guardian is no different. Atwater says he focuses on ensuring that, over time, IT expenses will grow more slowly than business revenues. He prefers a patient approach to adopting new systems and works to balance a desire to innovate and modernize with an eye toward cost control.

"I'm not a fan of platform replacement," he says. "I would prefer to build around and ultimately migrate. The big conversion projects are often hard to justify from an ROI perspective."

As such, Atwater is taking a cautious path to moving applications to the cloud. He reports that Guardian is using software-as-a-service platforms for HR ticketing and purchasing. But true to his analytic nature, Atwater still is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"Cloud is a great lever to be able to pull to be able to get that flexibility, speed to market and expense savings," he acknowledges. "But it's unrealistic to think that major portions of a large company's IT infrastructure will be migrated to a cloud in a short timeframe."

Kathy OwenJay LevineMark ShowersPete AtwaterRichard ConnellKelly HallGreg SchwartzRon Boyd

Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio

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