To meet the challenges of today's digital age, many carriers and their CIOs seek to build greater transparency into their technology plans and requirements, plotting a well-vetted course and design for all future acquisition and standardization plans. This relatively new approach, known as enterprise architecture (EA), has already delivered impressive results to the bottom line for some insurers.

To think of how EA works, think of a well-planned city: There is basic common infrastructure that supports the entire community, and guidelines and standards for new projects or construction. "When somebody wants to do something different, they have to apply to an architecture review board," says Heather Smith, senior research associate with Queen's University School of Business and active member with the Advanced Practices Council of the Society for Information Management. "Everyone has to fall in line with a particular technology, so they're not being given 'carte blanche' to everybody to go off and do what they want."

The goal is not to restrain or restrict technology initiatives, but to have everyone on the same page across the enterprise. "At the end of the day, enterprise architecture is about making strategic decisions to guide the evolution of an organization's IT capabilities and assets, to help the organization operate faster, better and cheaper over time," says Hussein Din, enterprise architect for Capgemini Financial Services.


Who Are the Enterprise Architects?

Enterprise architecture hasn't always been a business-friendly process. Until recent, it was an exercise rarely practiced or seen outside the glass walls of the data center, says Smith. "Enterprise architecture is changing from how we've seen it in the past," she says. "It's becoming a more holistic process, versus being focused on technology and applications."

There is now an emerging class of professionals—enterprise architects—who bridge the worlds of business and IT, having expertise in and speaking the language of both. Enterprise architects are guiding efforts to not only add a business sense to traditional IT planning, but also properly introduce their enterprises to new initiatives such as cloud computing and Big Data management.

Professionals both inside and outside of IT should be involved with guiding their organizations' business technology growth. "They are those people who understand things pretty quickly, and are pretty good at abstracting things out," says Frank Petersmark, CIO advocate with consultancy X by 2. "They have to be curious people who ask questions and should be good listeners. More than anything, they've got to understand the business they're in."

Enterprise architects—or those involved in EA teams—also should understand intuitively that there's money on the line that can't be interrupted, says Patrick Sullivan, chief architect for Chubb. "It's very important to have someone in the architecture group who's really looking at all the angles. They're not focused on project execution and how they're going to deliver that project. They're more focused on when their projects will be complete, how they are going to design it in such a manner that they don't have to redo it two years later."

Sullivan points out that Chubb's EA mirrors its federated business structure, and provides a technology road map with a long-range view. Such a roadmap has helped the company reduce redundant, obsolete or deficient technologies, as well as target emerging technologies in a consistent manner. By helping lines of business share common technologies and processes, and as a result, redistribute unused site licenses for software, Chubb was able to save $600,000 in one year. Even more importantly, Chubb now has an investment roadmap that provides transparency into IT decisions across the company. "The business is federated, so it was getting hard to have a cohesive view of architecture across the divisions," Sullivan says.

The key starting point in Chubb's effort was the establishment of consistent standards across the enterprise, Sullivan continues. "Our goal was to maintain connectivity to the architecture but also be responsible and accountable for the delivery of those things, as well as push and identify standards. We sought to have first-hand knowledge of how the standards are working."

Amerisure's EA initiative helped the company focus on key markets, relates X by 2's Petersmark, who previously served as CIO of Amerisure. However, it took education-both for the business and himself-to make it all work. "There was a point in time where no one particularly liked the return on IT investment," he says. "But we needed ways to think about this more holistically across the enterprise. What are we trying to achieve? What are the three or four or five main business drivers? We needed a targeted or desired architecture that took us toward our business goals and strategic objectives, not just a checklist."

This increased understanding helped Amerisure, a mid-sized regional insurer, focus on its service offerings, particularly servicing claims and managing loss control. "One of the things we determined is that we needed a better experience for agents, using Web 2.0. At the time, we were far away from that," he says. "We had mainframe, and a lot of data locked up. So we pushed hard for virtualization to mask some of the stuff on the back end, virtualize all the way through the desktops and push data out to agents and employees."

Enterprise architecture planning also helps companies coordinate various solutions at a time when most software is now being purchased from various outside vendors. For example, Aflac is currently implementing SAP Financials, an effort that has required coordination from all parts of the business, relates Keith Brown, VP of enterprise applications and architecture at Aflac. "You must integrate them in the corporate environment and integrate the messaging and flows and interactions between business systems, so business processes work from end to end, and data is accessible and can be successfully used in analytics on an ongoing basis."

Having a well-developed EA also helps business lines manage new product design and launches, Brown says. "A sound design of the components that make up a product allows us to configure new products thoroughly and have them launched with minimal issues," he says. "Because we have a design we reuse, we're able to run any new product configuration through a very robust but repeatable and familiar testing harness. And a whole set of test scripts that ensure that product is ready for production to be sold to new policyholders."

For many carriers, there is great urgency in bringing new technologies on board in a thoughtful, deliberate way. "Cloud computing, mobility and adoption of social media for collaboration cannot be ignored," says Din. "Improved intelligence for risk evaluation, underwriting and claims administration through standardization of data model and analytics is becoming increasingly critical to maintaining a competitive advantage. These capabilities are game changers for the way business is conducted. These are some of the key factors driving the adoption of EA."

Joe McKendrick is a Doylestown, Pa.-based author and consultant specializing in IT, and a regular blogger for insurancenetworking.com. Former INN Senior Editor, Bill Kenealy, contributed to this article.

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