When he's not managing Allstate's IT as executive VP of technology and operations, Suren Gupta says, he likes to travel with his family. "I like going to other countries and seeing different cultures," he says. And the same could be said of his long career as an IT innovator and manager: Gupta has worked for a telecom company, Intelsat; a division of General Motors; and immediately before coming to Allstate, as CIO of the bank Wells Fargo. He's become adept at identifying the similar ways in which the industries he's worked in are being disrupted.
"There used to be a time when banks thought the brick-and-mortar branch would be threatened by the advent of the Internet, but instead it's just that the role that they play is very different than what it used to be 20 years ago," Gupta says. "I see the same kind of dynamics with our agents, who will become much more central in terms of managing the relationship with the policyholder."
During Gupta's two-plus years at Allstate (Northbrook, Ill.), he has presided over a sea change in the insurer's technology department and enterprise overall. He has instituted reforms that more tightly align technology strategy with business strategy and set in place a framework for innovation that keeps employees at all levels thinking about what's possible in the insurance business with advanced technologies on behalf of customers.
"There has to be a balance between strategy-driven technology, where the business defines the value that they want the technology to deliver, and technology-driven strategy, where you really sit down and identify technologies that will improve the business or consumer experience," he says.
[Meet Gupta and hear from other prominent insurance technologists, including keynote speaker Marsh COO Bill Pieroni and 2013 Elite 8 AXA Equitable CIO Michael Healy, at I&T's Elite 8 Executive Forum, Nov. 7 in New York City]
The second category is the cloud, and how that kind of infrastructure affects insurers' ability to play in the mobile big data world, Gupta says. That flows directly into the third, which comes under the larger umbrella of "decision sciences" and includes the potential for big data and analytics to help the company price, rate and risk-profile its services and products.
"We want to get to a point where as you're changing your lifestyle, I as an agent should be able to advise on how I can protect you better," he says. "The whole notion of being able to cross-sell and upsell is near and dear to my heart. That's where the agencies play a big role in helping our customers make the right choices -- we need to enable our agents with information and technology so that they can provide high value to our customers. That's where the rubber hits the road for tech -- it's where tech brings the value-added information that our customers are looking for."
Close To The Business
But the thrill of playing with advanced technologies is tempered by the realities of insurance IT infrastructure, according to Gupta. "We absolutely have to focus on the things [where] we can make the biggest dent in terms of value," he says.
So Gupta worked to realign the IT organization more closely with Allstate's businesses. He created a layer of divisional CIOs, each responsible for a different line of business at Allstate, who integrate with working groups for horizontal IT capabilities such as infrastructure, testing, release management, program management and architecture.
"The goal was that I wanted the DCIOs to have more accountability and responsibility as partners to the lines of business, and I wanted consistency across the organization," he explains.
The divisional CIOs and his other officers are held to five pillars by which IT organizes the metrics it needs to achieve, according to Gupta. The first four are:
- How valuable their technology implementations are to the customer
- How well they partner with Allstate's businesses to meet their needs
- How well they optimize cost
- How well they manage regulatory risk and meet compliance requirements
But Gupta is also a big believer in rewarding effective and efficient innovations and implementations across all levels of the IT organization. That leads to the fifth pillar: how well his officers are able to make Allstate a great place to work. It's a pillar Gupta holds himself to as well.
"I believe this is the best time to be part of a company like Allstate," he says. "I firmly believe innovation has no boundaries, and anyone in the organization can come up with an idea and submit it."
To that end, Gupta has sponsored App Attacks, where small teams compete to use off-the-shelf technology to solve a business problem in a novel way, as well as Innovation Blitzes, in which the organization as a whole is encouraged to crowdsource solutions to business problems.
"We've got a really well-defined strategy in how we support our business," Gupta says. "And we have a priceless asset in our agencies -- that's a huge network of agents that reaches into the local communities that we serve."
It gets back to the lesson Gupta took from his banking days: It's not so much about shifting all customer interactions to digital channels; rather, it's about leveraging what agents do best and developing technology that puts them on the right path to serve customers.
"The difference in banking and insurance is frequency of touch. Something like Drivewise [Allstate's usage-based insurance program] is a way for us to make sure we can serve our customers better, give them rewards or give them feedback," he says. "Agents become the center of interaction for us -- they can actually advise our customers with a better protection plan."
And in a colossally competitive arena like P&C insurance, that is invaluable.
"If you look at the top five U.S. advertisers in the P&C space, we collectively have spent more than $3.5 billion, which is almost 23% higher over 2010," Gupta concludes. "When you see that competition intensified to that level, you have to make sure you seize every opportunity to deliver extra value for our customers."