August 25, 2011

To fulfill its potential as a diversified financial services company, Ameritas Life Insurance Corp. is transforming its IT organization into a high-performance unit, says Richard Wiedenbeck, who joined the company in 2010 as VP of IT for individual life, retirement plans and broker-dealer business. Currently, a majority of Ameritas' business is in life insurance, and the firm's management is focused on growing its financial services business and driving greater product innovation across all lines of business, reports Wiedenbeck, a key player in the company's technology transformation.

"We have a decent-sized block of life insurance but would like to grow in the annuities and retirement business," he relates. "Traditionally a fast follower, we've always had an interesting product mix, but we want to be even faster [to market]."

On the business side, rebuilding Ameritas' distribution will be key to fulfilling the company's objectives, according to Wiedenbeck. On the technology side, he says, the insurer needs to "reset" its application layer. Ameritas, a Lincoln, Neb.-based affiliate of UNIFI Mutual Holding Co. ($1.9 billion in annual revenue), has acquired, built and modified a collection of systems over the years that has resulted in a complex IT environment, Wiedenbeck explains. "We want to strategically swap some things out, evolve to newer capabilities in some places, and simply leapfrog to new vendor offerings where opportunities exist," he says.

Ameritas' IT organization is focused on optimizing the use of existing in-house technology that has been underutilized. "We have a world-class BPM tool in [IBM's] Lombardi, we have WebSphere portal -- we have several technologies that we are yet to derive full value from," Wiedenbeck acknowledges.

In addition, the insurer is focused on what Wiedenbeck calls "enabling the intelligent business," an initiative by which Ameritas will move from a report-centric culture to an analytics-centric culture that can make the right information available at the right time to the right parties in order to support critical decision making. "We're using up-to-date business intelligence frameworks and analytical tools, such as Information Builders [New York]," Wiedenbeck says. "It's about getting to a single source of operational truth, distributing that to the transactional systems and providing management dashboards for executive decision makers."

At the same time, Wiedenbeck and his colleagues are grappling with the challenges of being a "blue and red shop" -- meaning that the company has significant elements of both IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) and Oracle (Redwood Shores, Calif.) technology. "We have extra work at the points of integration of those technologies in order to sustain value and not bear too much cost," Wiedenbeck elaborates. "We have WebSphere portal technology on one end and Oracle Universal Content Manager on the other, and it's difficult to get them to play together. You don't get seamless integration between the two, so you have to engineer those integration points yourself."

Engineering processes also are a priority at Ameritas, as the company seeks to lower the costs of doing business while improving functionality and service quality. "We're reengineering processes, streamlining, automating and making them more paperless," Wiedenbeck reports. "We're taking advantage of newer transactional systems' workflow, BPM and other technologies, but first we're focusing on developing the improved process and then leveraging the technology to automate it."

Distribution in the Cloud

Meanwhile, IT and the business are working closely to renovate Ameritas' distribution system and producer effectiveness by turning to the cloud. "We're going the Salesforce.com route, so we're making tools to better manage our sales force, sales activities and distribution support capabilities in the cloud, and be accessible any time, anywhere by all of the stakeholders that need to be involved," Wiedenbeck says.

Fulfilling Ameritas' potential will require stiffening the sinews of the IT group, Wiedenbeck admits. The task the company faces, he says, is not only optimizing business and technology capabilities, but also transforming the IT organization itself.

"We have to take an organization that has not been process-centric, metrics-driven or transformational in character and shape it into a unit that embraces those concepts and uses them on a natural, day-to-day basis to drive business value," says Wiedenbeck. "We need to inject 15 years of experience into our culture in a third of that time. We plan to do that by bringing experience in, by training existing staff and augmenting our organization with experts who can get us there faster in a sustainable way."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek ...