Cloud Computing Gets Insurers Over the Hump
Robert Regis Hyle | February 28, 2017
In an industry that is often slow to change, the movement to operate core systems in the cloud has been lightning fast. Cloud computing, and its various forms such as SaaS, has been available for decades, but as few as five year years ago not many industry analysts believed insurers were ready to operate core systems such as policy, billing, and claims, in any manner other an in-house system of servers.
That has changed greatly in recent years for carriers of all sizes. One such insurer, Vermont-based Union Mutual, went live with the ISCS policy administration solution SurePower Innovation in 2012 and Gary H. Ouellette, executive vice president of the insurer, explains that since the initial implementation his company’s vision has always been with an eye toward the cloud.
“We needed to be patient to allow the cloud to mature to a point where not only was the infrastructure stable, secure, repeatable and affordable, but also for the Software as a Service piece to integrate,” he says.
Ouellette believes the cloud has been able to handle the tasks needed by insurance carriers for about two years, but it took time for software solution providers to get everything lined up and make that move beyond Infrastructure as a Service to Solution as a Service.
“The transition was seamless, so why anyone at this point would not be willing to go there is a hard argument for me to wrap my head around,” said Ouellette.
Differences in the Cloud
For Union Mutual, any differences in the operation since moving to the cloud have been minor. Ouellette points out the insurer formerly had someone responsible for running the processes in the background on a daily basis, but that position no longer exists. That task is now handled by ISCS, which was purchased by Guidewire last December, as part of the service they provide, according to Ouellette.
The bigger difference for Union Mutual is not directly related to the cloud, but rather no longer having to be the owner of infrastructure and the expenses that are wrapped around owning and supporting infrastructure internally.
“Getting away from an infrastructure refresh every three years to go to a month-by-month predictable expense structure give me comfort in my CIO-type role in that we are becoming integrators and innovators and not just network technicians and server technicians,” says Ouellette. “It’s a higher and better use of our personnel. It's about economy of scale—we're an insurance company not a tech company. It's all about making it work for our clients and not spending hundreds of thousands of dollars owning infrastructure anymore.”
The financial benefits from moving to the cloud include security provisions and continuity, and disaster recovery capabilities. Such advantages come because these capabilities are used on a shared basis rather than one carrier doing it all alone, points out Donald Light, director of Celent’s North America property & casualty insurance practice.
Secondly, adds Light, the solutions—policy, claims, billing—tend to be priced on a use basis as opposed to a single installation or license, which is often independent or loosely linked to usage.
“The upgrade process tends to be faster, cheaper and less painful with a cloud solution than it is if the software was installed on premises,” says Light. “The vendor itself will do 90 percent of the upgrade work so it becomes more seamless from an insurer point of view and that translates to savings.”
Not Without Challenges
The challenge facing Union Mutual was being the first self-hosted partner of ISCS (and now Guidewire) that moved to the new Sure Package/Amazon hosting environment. It was the first time the insurer lifted its data and the system out of the environment of self-hosting and put it into Amazon Web Services, according to Ouellette. He reports it took the insurer approximately nine months of work, testing, and configuration to make sure everything was right before the carrier went live.
Once Union Mutual was poised to proceed, the carrier took a long weekend to move data. Ouellette explains there were few problems because the carrier and the solution provider had pre-mapped and tested everything they wanted to do.
“The key area in going to the cloud from a self-hosted environment is moving large amounts of data,” says Ouellette. “It depends on how much data the carrier has. For us it involved having an employee physically carry a device on an aircraft to the west coast so we could upload it from our partner's location in a quicker way than we could from our own location in Vermont. Once we pulled the trigger it was all good. We've plowed the greenfield for the next folks and it should be repeatable.”
Direct to Cloud
According to Light, if you go back five years he would talk to insurance CIOs about cloud or SaaS solutions and four times out of five they would say they had Salesforce and that was the end of the conversation.
When you asked that group about using the cloud for core systems, insurers were wary about trying something along that line. Today, though, the fear factor that was present then is gone. Issues such as security, privacy and the ability to switch from one cloud provider to another have, for the most part, disappeared.
“A lot of the concern was security based and cloud providers have basically created a set of security measures and communicated those measures to alleviate the fears and concerns for a lot of companies—midsize and smaller,” says Light. “The major cloud providers can present a case that the security provisions they have in place are hard for a midsize or smaller company to equal.”
“We talked to a lot of insurers about this and they have gotten over the hump about cloud,” says Karen Pauli, a principal at Strategy Meets Action. “We don't see the worry as an issue anymore. The expense savings is real, but I think the big driver in 2016 was we saw a change in the core deals.”
In assessing how long it was taking insurers to install core systems, the average was about 18 months, according to Pauli. “That’s just too long for insurers to wait to get the business value,” she says. “Also significant is the amount of time and expense for upgrades.”
Insurers have reassessed the situation and determined if they have core in the cloud they don't have to go through an 18 to 24 month installation rollout or the massive upgrade initiatives, explains Pauli. They can be delivering business value quickly—in months, not years—and they don't have to go through long upgrades.
“Having lived in both environments, I would tell any of my peers they should start in the cloud,” says Ouellette. “I find it almost impossible there would be a rationale for self-hosting almost anything going forward. Save the time, energy, and ROI and just go cloud on Day One and start realizing the benefits immediately.”
Pauli claims some insurers have implemented new core systems within two months, thanks to the cloud, although that figure is anecdotal. Converting from a traditional system to the cloud has its own challenges. In such cases, Pauli explains the conversion strategy is important.
“We have spoken to some that have left their legacy technology alone and gone with new business in the cloud,” she says. “Every insurer is different because business strategies are different and legacy strategies are different. Anytime you convert in the cloud you have data issues. It also depends on how old the legacy system is.”
Process, Customer Improvements
Ouellette believes Union Mutual already has a strong customer service presence, so the switch to the cloud comes down to making sure that whoever the client is—be they agent, insured, third-party adjuster—they are going to have access to the carrier’s systems and portal regardless of whatever else is going on in the world.
“That's going to be there—safe, fast, and for years to come,” he says. “It's another way to leverage what we've built internally and make sure the technology piece is there. I hate to refer to it as an afterthought, but it should be something no one gives a second thought to as we grow the business.”
Operating core solutions in the cloud won’t necessarily change business processes or customer service, explains Light. New business or changes in policies in force aren’t much different in how fast changes are made, whether the core systems are in the cloud or built on premises.
There are some differences such as changes or improvements in processing that can often be done quicker and cheaper with a cloud solution rather than on premises within some basic parameters, adds Light.
“If you took two insurance companies with the same solution where one is installed on premises and the other in the cloud, the initial installation doesn't make much difference for a policyholder or agent, but six months or more down the line, it may actually be a better experience for the policyholder or agent because the cloud-based version has likely been upgraded more so than the on-premises version,” he says. “The whole point of upgrades is to provide better features, and functionality.”
The cloud-based system has not brought about any process changes for Union Mutual, according to Ouellette, but he believes the move gives the carrier a powerful platform to expand enhanced reporting and analytics. For example, Union Mutual is looking at running Amazon's Aurora database. The company also has reporting tools that weren’t available two months ago that allow the carrier to do complex data manipulation and query in short time frames compared to what they were doing before.
The value of the cloud for agents and policyholders is really the same as it is for carriers—not having to wait 12 to 16 months for an upgrade, which results in better capabilities that arrive quickly.
“For the policyholder, I don't know that they would ever know an insurer is on Amazon or Microsoft,” says Pauli. “The speed means insurers can bring more value to their customers—being able to scale, which they couldn't do very well in the past. AWS has a lot of economies of scale and that has value for the customer.”
Fear of Amazon
Rather than fear Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, Pauli believes insurers should embrace the cloud offerings of those tech giants because of the hidden value for developers and architects—familiarity with the industry.
“You have a broader universe of developers and architects to bring into the organization, which is a good deal considering IT resources are slim in some places,” says Pauli. “When you look at Salesforce, which a lot of insurers use for their customer analytics and contact centers, it has become a standard within the insurance industry. You come to the party using Amazon and Microsoft with a lot of applications out there. That's a good deal for insurers to have that already are sitting on AWS or Microsoft Web Services. It's value for insurers.”
Many in the industry have spent the last few years worrying that technology giants such as Amazon, Google or Microsoft would make an entry into the market. It turns out they have, but certainly not in a manner that carriers need to fear.
“I think (cloud services) will change the view of people in the industry that these are valued partners or suppliers that enable a lot of improvements in both financial and service improvements through their cloud offering,” says Light. “That said, there will still be many in the insurance industry will have nightmares over Google and Amazon, but whether those nightmares are justified is another question. I tend to doubt it, but I've been wrong before. Some of the fear and loathing will be reduced.”
“The technology has matured significantly,” says Pauli. “People understand it is safe. You might not get anyone to admit it, but it may be safer than what they had inside their brick and mortar walls because you have people delivering these capabilities that are dedicated and apply a huge amount of resources to security.”
Beginning in 2015, Pauli reports SMA began to see a trend among the lower half of midtier and small insurers to go with the cloud option. She believes the competitive pressures affected their decisions.
SMA also knows top 10 insurers have made the cloud decision for core technology and the option is expending in its attractiveness. Pauli feels the choice to go with the cloud option makes sense for many top tier insurers, particularly if they choose to work with the major cloud service providers.
“You have data centers all over the world with Amazon, Microsoft and Google, so you can do a global implementation quickly and that makes a big difference for global insurers,” she says.
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