October 21, 2013

Insurance CIOs tend to spend their workdays under intense pressure, managing large teams and budgets, examining the minutiae of lines of programming code, and putting out fires that pop up from time to time. As such, many spend their free time on calm, solitary hobbies: crafts, books, outdoor activities, etc. But Michael Healy, CIO of AXA Equitable, bucks this trend: When away from his job, he manages a youth baseball team in his hometown, the New York City borough of Staten Island. It's a frenetic, high-pressure environment -- but one that he says is highly rewarding.

"It is a team that plays at a high level and we travel," Healy says. "In the end, though, it's still managing a bunch of 12- and 13-year-old boys. You try to take some of your organizational skills with you, but in the moment, it's organized chaos."

One might expect the management lesson from such a hobby would be about the intricacies of dealing with different egos or skill levels, or relating in-game strategy around double switches or pitching matchups to making vendor or budget choices. But as a technologist, Healy sees a different lesson: the integration of advanced technologies in places that once seemed unlikely. For example: Even in Little League, stats are electronic.

Michael Healy, AXA Equitable
Michael Healy, AXA Equitable

"We use an iPad app to track all our stats," Healy says. "I introduced it about two years ago. You still need to do the record-keeping aspect of the game -- the league expects it, and I have to turn it in as part of the compliance."

And that investment in a tool for compliance had ancillary benefits, he says. It gives parents who can't make the games real-time access to what's happening, something that's important in a world where, Healy notes, "people often have better technology at home than what they have at work." And so, many of Healy's successes at AXA have been related to giving stakeholders functionality that keeps pace with their increasing technological savvy. "For a long time, we were primarily a BlackBerry shop. But the agents weren't big fans of it, because in some cases we had to downgrade their technology," he says. "We're trying to meet the challenges of the sales force, and we've implemented a hardware-independence strategy."

The crown jewel of this shift is a straight-through processing platform for which Healy led development over a couple of years. The goal was to flip a process that was paper-intensive and led to as much as 70% not-in-good-order applications on its head. Healy began by rearchitecting the company's policy administration platform for annuity products, because of a product development need that was initially specific to that line of business.

"If you think back to 2006 or 2007, annuity carrier competition was fierce," he explains. "It started to become a race to change products. So we had a lot of back-end systems that needed to feed or transport data. That was our launchpad to putting in the service-oriented architecture."

Product Innovation

AXA now uses the annuity system as its policy administration platform for all products, Healy says, giving it a big advantage as the need for product innovation has expanded beyond just annuities.

"Other people are still trying to figure out how to put new products on their platform, but since our flagship annuity admin system is the processing engine for all the products we have, we've made some really big strides in innovation on the product front," he says. "We've pushed our vendors and service providers to support these new concepts that the business comes up with."

In the process of the revamp, AXA began to explore cloud vendors for the first time. That affects the bring-your-own-device strategy as well, Healy explains, because using Web services makes security a different proposition. "We looked really hard -- we probably spent over a year -- evaluating security packages that we could use that would give us some level of policy in our ability to manage these devices," he says.

The product engine and the straight-through processing capabilities have gone a long way toward improving the agent and customer experience, but Healy also used the major project as an impetus to change the way his organization develops and delivers new software. The company brought in outside firms to help it learn to deliver software in a more iterative way and operate on budget -- in terms of both time and money. It was crucial that the additional training was inclusive and broke down a lot of the walls among the staff so that everyone bought in, he says. "We didn't want to create two organizations where only some people had the 'cool' badge."

But whether you're talking about changing processes internally or introducing a new portal to a sales force, delivering on promises goes a long way in mitigating any wounds, Healy concludes. "I've been in insurance for a while and I've worked at brokerage houses, and one of the hardest parts is getting people to adopt new technologies. But once you show what's in it for them, it helps."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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, ...