June 05, 2007

By Anthony O'Donnell

There was a curious moment during former Secretary of State Colin Powell's keynote speech Monday at the 2007 IASA Educational Conference & Business Show. Powell rhapsodized about the open and generous character of the American people, and how in the post-9/11 era Americans need to cultivate that character and continue to welcome the outside world with open arms.Powell built an emotional crescendo, telling touching stories, such as Brazilian students move by the generosity of a restaurant owner buying their meal when they came up short, and a Manhattan hot dog cart operator who refused to let the senior diplomat pay because America had already paid the vendor so much. No doubt many were touched, as I was, by the stories as Powell moved to an applause line saying that America would remain great "as long as we remain an open and welcoming society." And yet, the applause didn't materialize for the moving words of this man who had been welcomed to a standing ovation. Rather, a woman next to me aborted a motion to clap, seeing that others remained still, and for a second or two stray coughs punctuated an awkward quiet.

Probably a critical mass of listeners felt as I did: it's all very well to counsel and open and welcoming spirit and to applaud a degree of generous, hospitable spirit that Americans have traditionally aspired to; but are not some caveats due in an age when terrorists take advantage of openness to study at our aviation schools to learn to fly jets into our buildings, and where freelance jihadis have similarly gamed the open societies of the United States, Canada, Spain and the United Kingdom to plot and execute atrocities?

Powell left, as he had arrived, to a heartfelt standing ovation from an audience that no doubt deeply appreciates his long and distinguished career of service to his country, his leadership qualities and unparalleled experience-to say nothing of the unexpected familiarity and humor of his speech. However, I remain convinced that many held their applause because however much they agreed with Powell's optimism, many wished, if only with regard to that one argument, that it had been tempered by caution.

And caution is a good enough theme for a conference dedicated to questions that influence the spending large amounts of treasure on technology solutions-perhaps all the more with the (perhaps irrational) exuberance with which I wrote my last note, on the subject of the ACORD/LOMA conference and the state of insurance technology.

Perhaps trade show fatigue (TSF) is beginning to set in, perhaps the emphasis on sessions more than personal meetings has dampened my enthusiasm slightly, but I find myself dwelling as much this time on the risks as the opportunities. Will the rash of policy administration investments bear the expected fruit? What strategic rethinking inspires the Indian companies to continue to seek American front-men (or women)? Is SOA the new SEMCI (as suggested by Patni front-woman Judy Johnson)? Are insurance company technology organizations truly aligned with the strategic vision of senior business leadership, or is a superficial pretense of same actually undermining the success of long-term architectural planning.

For most of the big questions, there are no obvious and unambiguous answers, which is why we get together and talk about these things at shows like IASA and ACORD/LOMA, and in the pages of Insurance & Technology, to build knowledge and trust and try to mitigate the risks of technology investment. But as long as risk exists-along with death and taxes-and as long as enthusiasm leads to hype and false investment trails, caution will be a cardinal virtue of CIOs and business executives alike.

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 ...