At CNA, one of the largest commercial insurers in the country, CIO Ray Oral is hard at work consolidating policy administration and underwriting platforms while setting the company up for a future defined by new service models and analytics excellents. He spoke with INN about what’s on his plate, how he makes key decisions, and what the insurance industry can learn from the startup community.

INN: What’s the big news coming out of CNA’s technology organization?

Ray Oral: Probably the big thing that’s been at the forefront is our underwriting transformation. We’ve been executing our current underwriting path for probably the past three or four years. Over the past two years we’ve stepped on the gas a little bit, with the goal of getting us to the end of the complexity faster. We’re doing a lot of work around enterprise content management, that’s one of the biggest digital undertakings that we have. It’s really internally facing because it’s intended to have our underwriters get the information they need to be underwriters.

INN: What kind of complexity are you referring to? How has it affected your other technology decisions?

Oral: CNA has been a difficult place for an underwriter — over the years we’ve had something like 14 different underwriting platforms. The same has been true for claims professionals — anyone who has to go into multiple systems. We are a Guidewire shop and we’ve just completed putting in a new release of Guidewire ClaimCenter. Not just as an IT organization, but as a business overall, we’ve been able to become a bit more agile and leverage things like devops to deploy technology faster.

INN: Are you planning to complete the Guidewire suite?

Oral: Well, we’ve still got some work to do. Getting down to two or three underwriting systems is the start. Then there’s integrating them in a way that as we build a product in [suite component] PolicyCenter it carries through to ClaimCenter. We’ve looked at BillingCenter, but we probably won’t do anything like that right away. It’s not necessarily core to what we do, so if we could get billing as a service that would be great. I don’t think there’s a differentiator there as long as our bill is not confusing.

INN: I know you have been working to reduce your data center footprint. How are you evaluating which capabilities make sense for as-a-service and which ones you want to keep in-house?

Oral: There are things where we just need to get the work done, not necessarily try and differentiate ourselves. We’ve moved things like enterprise resource planning, HR, investment management, to a service. Things we don’t need to differentiate on but need to be efficient in doing. Those are easy answers. We have to make sure we don’t create more risk for the organization and don’t impact our efficiency. But something like policy admin, when I think about the size and scale of CNA and what we’re doing and moving to Guidewire. I don’t think there’s a viable as-a-service solution for that today.

INN: Can you talk a little bit about how this has informed your strategy around big data and analytics?

Oral: We have an advanced analytics effort underway: It covers how we think about data and analytics, the tools we use and how we approach the linkages. We’ve implemented Oracle’s analytics platform as a service, we’re running that in the cloud. We’ve got a couple of claims initiatives we’re working through on that platform, as well as some initiatives in the distribution space. Those are more exploratory efforts now, we need to see how the analytics works for us.

INN: A couple years ago CNA decided to sell and lease back a data center in Aurora, Ill. Is that a strategy that you could see yourself returning to?

Oral: Here’s the way I look at it: As we make decisions about where we buy tech or tech services from, they move out of our existing data centers, I don’t want to be stranding cost [in our data center]. It’s a huge investment. The sale gave us a way to start eliminating those risks as we started moving things to the cloud. We’ve already shrunk our footprint in the data center we sold.

INN: So there’s a lot of change and transformation going on. What’s helping you manage that change?

Oral: The first step is implementing some tools. We’re a big user of Citrix products, and have deployed XenMobile. That’s because if you think about the life of an underwriter, when you have to work within multiple systems — tools that are based on a mainframe, tools on a Unix-based platform — that can be challenging. How you integrate them together is the question. That software gives us the opportunity to have that single pane of glass, we can make it all look the same. We can ease that journey as we move from legacy. We want to create a look at feel that’s as close as it can be knowing it won’t be perfect. Thinking about our underwriting experience, what is it that the underwriter needs to do to be more effective as they’re looking at risk.

INN: How about the IT organization itself?

Oral: I’ve been a big believer in a highly centralized IT organization, but one that is aligned in a way that serves the business needs. We’ve worked tirelessly to get there. In 2010 and 2011, when we were starting this journey, we really shifted the focus of the IT organization from [maintenance] to one based around transformation and growth. I consider the teams we have aligned tightly to each of our business areas. There’s a much smaller family of jobs now, and we bring in interns that turn into rotationals, end up on a two-year rotation, will end up working in different jobs in IT and the business.

INN: You mentioned Agile development and devops specifically. How are you encouraging use of those tactics with your staff?

Oral: We’ve agreed to move forward on something with Pivotal [a company that helps enterprises explore Agile development]. We’re trying to decide the right effort to move forward on with them. We’ve already got eight or 10 people in a collaborative workspace deploying something in real time into production every day.

INN: Is that sort of a cue you think the insurance industry can take from the rising number of fintech companies and startups targeting the industry?

Oral: I think the face of insurance is forever changed. It’s why these guys have moved from targeting banking into insurance. I spend more of my time talking to people who are thinking of doing more creative things; that’s not something we were spending a lot of time on. Insurance companies weren’t regarded as the most risk taking, we’re supposed to be conservative, that has permeated our companies for years and years. But that’s all changing for the better. CNA has become a really interesting place for IT people to work as we start taking a little more risk and trying test-and-fail. It helps people feel encouraged to ideate more.

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