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ITA Bridge Award: Walk a Mile in My Shoes

Robert Regis Hyle | June 25, 2015

Insurance carriers can no longer afford to allow their business units to live in a vacuum. Decisions that affect business users can’t be effective unless the business side has input on the direction the company takes, particularly with the use of technology.

Union Mutual Insurance of Vermont put those beliefs into action and in recognition of their efforts, Lisa Keysar, senior vice president of client services, and Gary Ouellette, senior vice president of operations, were named recipients of the Insurance Technology Association’s first ITA Bridge Award.

Union Mutual identified the need for increased system development velocity as a result of a philosophical change the company made a few years ago when a large portion of the carrier’s discretionary IT budget were put into the business units’ control. As a result, the business was empowered to have an active voice in deciding how IT can best use its resources.

As Union Mutual finished the implementation of its new policy administration system from ISCS and went into production mode, the insurer felt it was important to rethink what the business staff was going to work on and how they were going to go about it.

“The business units are the ones that use the system on a regular basis and talk with the agents on a regular basis and we wanted the business units to have a seat at the table on what the company was going to do,” says Keysar. “We could give IT a list of things we wanted to do so we felt it was important to put someone between IT and the business units that knew the system and what was important to our agents and the internal staff.”

Keysar believes this gave the business units a feeling they were the ones to decide what needed to be done and negotiate as issues arose. The business units basically did the negotiations themselves and gave their requests to Keysar who passed them along to the project management office so the PMO could prioritize the actions depending on the developer's time schedule.

“As much as IT feels like we are a partner at the table, I never feel like IT should be driving the business,” says Ouellette. “We should support, assist and guide so the business units don't look at us as drivers. Insurance is about products, underwriting, service, and price. For my IT folks it's about using our knowledge to help the business.”

Ouellette was impressed with how Keysar stepped up and agreed to play this role. He calls her a real-time steering committee.

“Lisa took a process where it is hard to be efficient because of scheduling and made it more efficient, streamlined, and sustainable,” he says. “It was an immediate game changer. If I was a consultant going to another organization I would say find your Lisa and establish this bridge so you can discover how efficient you can be. The person has to be comfortable and put in a lot of effort to make this successful.”

Ouellette believes his background and that of Keysar made the relationship work. In the past, he had some supervisory management over customer support functions at Union Mutual and Keysar has an intimate knowledge of the IT side of the house.

“I don’t think either of us would want to jump in, but between the two of us, with our process management skills and knowledge, if we had to we could fill each other's shoes for some time,” he says. “Being able to know and understand what our peers are doing in substantial parts of their job functions is important in the overall success of our company.”

Keysar agrees she and Ouellette are both focused on process improvement. She believes from an IT standpoint, the customer support department was integral in the integration of Union Mutual’s policy system through their knowledge of the migration and the daily workflow.

“We have a good understanding of the system and we are a conduit to the agents on a daily basis through the help desk,” she says. “It's pretty natural to work with Gary on what needs to be fixed or enhanced and also be able to understand what the business units need. It's been a fairly easy partnership.”

Between Ouellette and Keysar, they have about 45 years working with Union Mutual. Spending that much time together over that many years has allowed them to know each other's style and approach to issues. “We have a high level of transparency so when we disagree or work on some issues we can do that,” says Ouellette. “That's really important.”

Part of that relationship involves the culture of Union Mutual, according to Keysar. The insurer is located in the small central Vermont city of Montpelier and there is a large number of long-term employees that includes multiple generations.

“We have a culture here that allows for open communication and from the top down we are very transparent as a senior management team,” says Keysar. “We’re able to discuss difficult topics. We take care of our employees and there is good communication internally.”

To address the changes, Ouellette said he held a couple of department-level conversations to introduce the concept to his IT team and adds the idea sold itself, partly because the IT staff knows Keysar and has worked closely with her team over the years.

“Their biggest concern was putting someone in that role who didn't have that knowledge,” he says. “That would have caused some turbulence.”

Keysar believes her biggest challenge was to stay neutral and allow the business to drive the process and tell her what was most important to them. Once the business units began to see things get done based on their recommendations, it solidified that the process could work.

Keysar points out that the business units also had to learn to prioritize things. If they came up with an idea they felt was a priority, they had to go back and look at earlier priorities and make a decision on which was most important rather than allow IT to make that decision for them.

“Once the velocity began to pick up it was a pretty easy process to buy into,” she says. “I try to have everyone at the table and give every partner and business unit the ability to feel what they are asking for is important. Depending on the time and what needs to be done there is always some frustration, but it is working really well.”

Keysar feels it was important for her to take ownership of what she felt Union Mutual needed to do to make the new policy system and processes a success.

“The system is our future so we need it to be successful,” she says. “The transparency of talking about difficult situations and not personalizing the discussion is what we have come down to. If Gary doesn't think something is appropriate, he will question me about it. We have conversations and move forward. We try not to cross the lines into the other's territory, but his staff works directly with me on a daily basis because I’m guiding them on what I feel they should be working on. It is a two-way communication and it is necessary for the success of the company.”

One of the reasons Ouellette feels he and Keysar work well together is he believes everything she does is for the best of Union Mutual.

“If you can get that mindset at the senior management level so everyone respects each other, communication difficulties melt away because you may realize there are two directions to the same answer and you can talk to each other on what's best,” he says. “You work for the best of the company and the bottom line. That eliminates a lot of the rub.”

Over the next five years, Ouellette believes the company will continue in the direction of business driving IT. He hopes to take the group of professionals in IT and make them even stronger in their partnership and consultative nature with the business to add even more value.

“We have a project management office with business analysts and they do a nice job in their roles,” he says. “I'd like to see those roles grow. When we gather requirements our business analysts need to be able to ask all the questions when the business is thinking about change to become more of a partner and bring greater value beyond the technical stuff we do. I don't see the approach we use changing as long as our management team is here. We will have a strong business leadership with the use of IT.”

“We have more ideas than we have time,” says Keysar. “There is a lot of communication with our agencies and their staffs to make sure we know the voices of our customers. We spend a lot of time reaching out to them to make sure we understand all their needs. The fixes take a lot of time, but it also takes a lot of time to make sure we are doing the right thing.”


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