There are not many insurance executives who will quote inventor Thomas Edison, Microsoft’s Steve Baumer, futurist Alvin Toffler, Moore’s Law and philosophers Aristotle and Plato.
There are also not many people in the insurance business who can flash business cards with the title, head of innovation.
Bill Hartnett does both.
Hartnett, a former executive in the insurance division at Microsoft, was named head of innovation at the industry’s global standards organization, ACORD, in September. As ACORD’s first innovation chief, Hartnett is reminding people that the “R” and “D” in the organization’s name stand for research and development. He is in a position to not only define what innovation means to an organization committed to efficiency and standards but also create an innovation model from which others in the industry might learn.
“[I]t’s back to the future for ACORD. We’re basically rekindling the R&D part of our charter because I think that’s a significant as anything else. It’s not just about standards. Standards is one of the R&D efforts that we’ve undertaken over the years. It’s the most successful. There are many other things we could be doing. The last decade or so we’ve been about global expansion. I think the next decade or so will be about innovation and how we help the industry adapt,” he said in a recent interview.
Hartnett can remember a time, not long ago, when the industry was laughing at innovation, dismissing forecasts of rapid change, and downplaying the prospect of outsiders disrupting their world.
That’s not the case anymore. Change is coming so swiftly that every sector, including insurance, is taking notice.
“In the last couple of years, almost every insurance conference I’ve been to has some disruption theme to it. People are paying attention, they’re taking notes, and they’re not giggling, right?” he said.
“They’re taking what normally would be far‑fetched ideas and saying, ‘You know what? Maybe that’s right. Maybe that will happen.’ Yes, I think the industry has started to pay a hell of a lot more attention.”Beyond conferences and conversations, there is proof of an industry paying attention in the number of innovation funds that insurance companies have formed to invest in new ideas. Hartnett cites American Family’s incubator as one and there are others. A group of Iowa insurers is funding the Global Insurance Accelerator. AXA Insurance also started one. A consortium of insurance firms including AIG, XL, Aspen and Marsh has launched a micro insurance incubator. And a London group is starting an insurance accelerator.
Hartnett is now in a position to help the industry move ahead with innovation. In a recent wide-ranging conversation with Wells Media Group’s Andy Simpson, Hartnett talks about innovation culture and the power of failure, lessons he learned at Microsoft, ACORD’s own Innovation Challenge, obstacles to innovation, forces of disruption, crowdsourcing ideas, bringing ideas to market quickly, the future of industry standards, and how the insurance industry could be affected by the next wave of technology and the Internet of Things.
The following is an edited version of this conversation with Hartnett, which is also available in full in audio.
I’m wondering if you think real innovation requires a certain culture. Is the industry undergoing a culture change? What lessons in that regard do you bring from Microsoft or the technology industry that might be useful?
Hartnett: I do think there’s a certain culture. It’s helpful to exist organization-wide but I think you just have to have some people in the organization that understand that innovation is characterized by failure. You cannot have a fear of failure. You actually have to embrace failure. Failure is actually an acceptable outcome because it’s a learning experience.
Probably the best example of that, I’m sure you’ve heard, that Thomas Edison when he was trying to invent the light bulb, went through a thousand filaments before he found an acceptable one that would work in the light bulb. People looked at him like, “How can you do this? You’re wasting your life. You’re absolutely crazy. Look at what you’re doing.”
His response was, “No, I’m making great progress. I’ve found 999 things that don’t work. I’ve learned a ton from that.” I think it’s that mindset that understands that failure is not necessarily a bad thing if you learn from it. It helped me…
It probably helped that Edison worked for himself, right?
Hartnett: It did help that he worked for himself but he wasn’t spending all of his own money. He had backers. They wanted him to come out with something that was good. Honestly, that’s one of the things that I did learn at Microsoft, is that failure is OK. The key is to fail fast. At Microsoft that was the culture. If we did something and it didn’t turn out the way we thought it would, that was perfectly OK as long as we understood that number one that we failed, and number two that we learned something from it…
Now, you can’t fail all the time, you have a certain tolerance for failure. But as long as you fail and learn from it, that’s a good thing. I do think that there needs to be in the insurance industry a culture change with IT taking hold in that they embrace the fact that we do need to try new things. We do need to have that culture that accepts that there is a risk in trying new things. Insurance, after all, is a very risk‑adverse culture. The basic business model hasn’t changed in 325 years from Lloyd’s coffee houses. It’s really kind of the same business model. It’s been enabled by technology largely. But we still have some of the same forms and terms and everything that was invented over three hundred years ago, but I do think that’s harder to change.
Another thing that I learned from Microsoft that I would apply here is that we used to say, “Shipping is a feature.” What was meant by that is if you wait for perfection before you launch a product, you’ll never get it out the door. At some point you have to say, “We’ve got all these great features in here. Where do we have to be if we’re going to ship a product?” Anything that comes after that goes in version two. That’s perfectly OK. I think that’s the false security in insurance business. You’re never going to get it exactly right. You need to get it into the marketplace and let your users tell you what needs to be fixed or what new features they’d like to see in it. You need to get feedback on it. I think that’s one of the great lessons I learned at Microsoft. That’s actually been backed up by Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn. I saw a quote from him where he said, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first product you shipped, then you waited too long to ship it.” That’s another way to put it.
Finally, at Microsoft I think that another lesson I learned about innovation is as we used to say, “Eat your own dog food.” It doesn’t sound like a very attractive image. But I think it’s very accurate in that when you’re building technology especially, you have to be willing to use what you’re building before your actual customers do.
In the case of ACORD, I think that if we’re not willing to get ACORD to look at our own processes and the things that we do or be willing to innovate internally we certainly can’t expect our customers to embrace innovation either. I think that’s one of the goals that Greg Maciag [ACORD CEO] had when bringing me on board, is to try and help create some of that culture here inside ACORD in addition to monitoring what’s going on in the industry. I’m really excited about that.
I was intrigued by the notion of an innovation chief at ACORD. Isn’t the purpose of ACORD to get everyone to follow the same standards, to do the same thing? How do you bring innovation to an organization whose mission is…in some ways, it seems, the opposite?
Hartnett: I think it does, maybe, to the uninitiated, or perhaps we haven’t done a good job of reminding people why ACORD was formed in the first place. ACORD was formed to promote efficiency in the industry. Initially with paper forms, right? We had thousands of paper forms all over the insurance landscape. ACORD was formed to come up with claims forms and auto applications and liability applications and certificates of insurance. But over the years, that’s translated to data standards. The thing that people forget is the R and D in the ACORD name stands for research and development. Innovation is synonymous with research and development, really.
If you look at ACORD as an organization that’s intended to promote efficiency, yes, efficiency comes from using common standards so that we all are speaking the same language. But it also comes from looking at new ideas, or looking at new ways of doing business, or new services that will bring efficiencies to the industry that nobody could imagine years before. I think it’s squarely about what ACORD does.
The final part I would say about that, in terms of innovation, is that the membership essentially asked for this through the board of directors with the disposition of what we called the 2020 Initiative of ACORD…
I have occasion in my community involvement to deal with a few tech people on environmental issues. What’s so exciting is how passionate they are about their ideas. One maintains that there’s a ton of technology in the pipeline waiting to be recognized, funded, or tried and experiment with, but that it just can’t all get through. Once it does, it’s going to change the world. Do you get that feeling that there is a lot of pent-up technology and ideas that could be implemented and especially come through a project like the ACORD Challenge that you’re doing?
Hartnett Absolutely. That’s one of the most exciting things I think about this. One of the reasons I wanted to do this challenge is that, I guess the term that I use is we live in an exponential world. Moore’s law is not just defined to technology now. You’re technology that you get every two years is twice as fast and half as expensive as it used to be.
It applies to medicine. It applies to solar cells. It applies to retail, and it applies to pretty much every industry being transformed at a Moore’s law rate of change that was completely unbelievable 20 years ago.
That’s all driven by technology. This is this disruptive force of technology sweeping through society right now. I think the term being used right now is the third wave of the Internet. That kind of harkens back to Alvin Toffler’s the third wave of technology which is the information age. This is the third wave of the Internet, which builds on top of that.
The changes that are going to happen over the new few years will just be incredibly dramatic. I think your finding is right on target. There’s so much out there that people just haven’t figured out how to apply to a market like insurance. Once they do, they feed on each other. I think that’s the key part about exponential technology, that one idea feeds on the next idea, and pretty soon you’ve got an amazing change in a very short period of time. I think that is what we will see with things like the ACORD Insurance Innovation Challenge.
You mentioned how your position and the innovation focus for ACORD came from members wanting to do more in this area. What do you see as some of the obstacles to more innovation? It strikes me that perhaps you face some of the same obstacles they may, whether they are carrier legacy systems, or just regulations, or whatever. What do you see as some of the obstacles to innovation for ACORD and for your members?
Hartnett: I think it does goes back to this fear of failure. That’s a very strong fear in everybody. Nobody wants to say how everybody likes to succeed. The personality and the mindset to see failure as something acceptable, and failure is something that you learn from, is a tough thing to learn. That would probably be the top thing ‑ trying to create that culture, at least create that mindset in people that it’s OK to fail.
Some of that, not only in ACORD but in our members, is kind of an HR policy. If I have a good idea, am I comfortable going to my manager saying, “Hey, I’ve got this really great idea. I think it could have a significant impact, but you know what, there’s a 90 percent chance it might fail.” Is that a conversation I feel like I could have?
It comes from the top down. It needs to come from the top of the organization, and in this case it came from Greg [Maciag]. Greg is the one who wanted to do this. We’re trying to create this culture of innovation here at ACORD. Hopefully we can be an example to the rest of our membership that it is a good model to follow, and it can actually be highly successful.
The other things that are obstacles for me is that we had this kind of adverse culture for a long period of time. Whenever a new idea comes along, it suffers what I call, “death by a thousand reasonable questions.”
There’s a ton of things you could say about the idea that all in their own right are reasonable. “Well it won’t work because of this.” “We tried that before, and this is what happened.” Those may all be accurate, but they’re also not relevant.
It’s the ability to resist those “thousand reasonable questions” or if you have those questions in the back of your mind, your ability to kind of stifle that voice inside you that says, “I need to find a reason why this won’t work.” Instead say, “I need to find a reason why this will work.” Let me think about it that way instead of thinking about all the things that are bad about it.
Those would be the biggest obstacles, I think, as you look at trying to create an innovative culture in the industry or an organization like ACORD. I can tell you in my early experience so far, and it’s only been a month on the job, I’m very confident that we’re going to create some incredible innovative culture at ACORD.
So you have a department and resources to actually do some research?
Hartnett: Well, the department is me, right now. I will say ACORD is a very collaborative organization. We’ve got an amazing staff here with a lot of expertise in a lot of different fields whether it’s membership development, or…we have a great communications and video department here. We have really great technical people in architecture and the standards development, in industry relations, in reaching out to other organizations, whether agents, or other insurance industry organizations ‑‑ really a lot of fantastic people here.
They are actually all part of my team. We’re going to try and make this something that we can staff from people based on their interests and trying to help out in certain areas or their expertise level.
The other thing that you have to recognize about ACORD in terms of resources is we are a volunteer organization as well. One of the things that happened is when the announcement about this new position went out, my LinkedIn and my Facebook blew up with people from my past that have reached out and said, “Boy, that’s a fantastic role for you Bill. If you need any help, just let me know.” I will reach out to those people.
There are some very bright people in a lot of different fields that are eager to help ACORD be successful. I’m confident I have all the resources that I need. In terms of budget. ACORD is a very well‑funded organization. I think we’re good there. As I said, Greg and the board are very enthusiastic about this. I’m very confident that I’ve got everything I need to be successful.
So you can take advantage of that and maybe ACORD can be a model for some other of the big carriers or other businesses? You don’t need to have big bureaucracy. You don’t need to have a big department. You create your own collaboration and techniques with all the resources that already exist within the company or your organization.
Hartnett: Exactly. I think creating the big innovations department is probably the wrong approach. I do think you need to have somebody like me, who the only thing they think about when they wake up in the morning. And they think about all day, is innovation and how we drive innovation in the business, how we drive innovation in our industry.
I don’t need a hundred direct reports to make that happen. I probably don’t need any direct reports to make that happen. I just need enthusiastic people who are convinced that they can make a difference and have some good ideas, and they’re willing to share them and do some work on that project. That’s all you really need to make it happen.
When you wake up in the morning and think about innovation, are you thinking about what might the industry expect? Are you thinking about product, processes, internal procedures at ACORD, or new relationships? What kind of things do you see where innovation might take hold?
Harnett: I think it’s all the above. ACORD first of all is a global organization. We have operations all around the world right now including our office in London. We have a presence in India. We’ve got a presence in Asia‑Pacific. We’ve got a presence in Australia. We’ve got a presence in South Africa. We still haven’t done much in Latin America yet, but that’s on the road map for us.
Each market is going to be a little bit different. The market maturity levels of each one of those are not the same. We’re going to have to be innovative on how we bring the ACORD assets that currently exist. Like the standards, forms in some cases, the architectures that we have to help people develop insurance applications. Those are going to have to be tailored to fit the dynamics of each one of those markets. That’s going to require some innovation.
We’re going to have to look at how we develop standards. We have this working group process that’s been in place from the beginning of ACORD. It served us fairly well but the world of how things get developed collaboratively has changed. In the past, the working groups all voted face‑to‑face. We didn’t have the Internet back then. Now we vote electronically but it’s kind of the same process.
There’s been advance in how other things in other areas that have taken advantage of what’s broadly called crowdsource, these open‑source movements where people contribute code and contribute ideas for the common good. That’s a model from an innovation standpoint that we’ll probably take a look at ACORD. Are there ways that we can crowdsource standards development and modify the working group model so that we can get even more people participating and volunteering their time and their expertise.
In terms of products, we developed a great body of IT in the standards that ACORD has developed over the years. To be frank, they’re not as widely implemented as any of us would like. I think we have to be innovative on how we go out and approach the community, whether it’s the insurance carriers who are building their own systems or the vendors who are building insurance applications, and talk to them about how incorporating ACORD standards into their plans would be very beneficial to them and to the industry as a whole.
ACORD has a lot of constituencies but I think one that’s been underserved in the past and I would like to provide some innovation around it, is reaching out to the developer community. I think people who write code for the insurance industry are the natural constituents for ACORD and one of the most important groups. We need to do a better job of explaining what it is that ACORD does and why it can be helpful in their business.
You mentioned crowdsourcing and new ways of collaborating. To what extent is speed part of innovation, being able to develop and bring to market ideas more quickly? How important is that?
Hartnett: It’s extremely important. I think it’s always been important. I think that’s one of the criticisms of ACORD in the past. I don’t think it’s currently true. If you’re going to take two years to develop a standard and get it voted on getting out in the market place, that’s far too long. The world moves at a very rapid pace. Today it’s even more wrong.
You need to have incremental development, or rapid development; agile development is the current buzzword. You need to get things out into the market place very fast. Shipping the feature is more important than that be an iterative thing very, very quickly.
Another thing we need to focus on at ACORD is that people that are writing code, picking up on my last point…If you’re writing code, you’re going to get a product into the market and you’re faced with the pace of change that general in the technology world, you have to ship things fast. You can’t wait around for an organization like ACORD to decide what this deal should be named, or how it relates to another one, or what we are going to call this. You need to get something out into the market ‑ you need to be as responsive and as capable as any of the software developers out there that we’re trying to serve. It’s very, very, very important…
I don’t know if this is an intelligent question but in addition to speed, what is the future of standards going to be like? Is there going to be a need for more standards or fewer standards in the industry?
Hartnett: That’s a good question. I think it’s a difficult one to answer. I don’t know the right level of standards. I can tell you that standards will always be important.
The thing that I would point to is if you look at the Internet itself, there are two chief standards. There’s TCPIP and HTML that went out for the World Wide Web. Those are standards that everybody agreed to. There are competing ways that people thought you could transmit data over the web or ways you could describe web pages. But those two went out. Everybody agreed to them.
Look at the amazing innovation we’ve had from those two standards, absolutely incredible. Standards are necessary. In the insurance industry, a policy from Company A has the same coverages and the same descriptions. You still have insurable interests. You still have the coverages on the policy. You still have the terms and conditions. All the data elements that go into that are fairly standard. There may be some custom ones you want to put it in. We don’t all need to reinvent the wheel as we’re building new products and services.
The other thing that’s interesting about insurance, in my experiences or at least in my view, is that it’s the most complex multi‑creating partner environment in the world. There’s thousands of insurance companies. There’s tens or hundreds of thousands of distributors. They’re all trying to take a fairly finite set of data and either find out interesting aspects of that data that give them a better underwriting algorithm or a better pricing algorithm but it’s all in the same data. Having that data in a standard format lets people innovate around that in the same way that innovations happened to the web.
I don’t know if we’ll need more standards in the future but I doubt we’ll need fewer. The foundation that ACORD has built is a very valuable asset to the industry worldwide in trying to create innovation around delivering new coverages for new exposures as the world changes…
If you’re looking at the history for ACORD standards, not just ACORD but standards around their industries, data standards started with the EDI. They swapped files, fixed‑length standards. They most recently migrated to XML standards with their method-based standards, variable field lengths. We created schema, and everybody understands what it means and understand what the message contains. XML is far easier to work with.
There will be something to succeed XML in the computer science and data science world, I’m confident. The latest movement is around things called Business Ontologies where you describe…it’s a term that derives from philosophy, from Aristotle and Plato that describes what the world looks like. What could be said to exist.
Computer science has taken that and put that into a context that says, “How can we broadly describe the world around us in terms of objects that we want to apply computing powers to, and can those be more universally applied?” That’s something that we’re investigating at ACORD.
Is there business ontology for insurance that succeeds where we are now with XML and some of the other standards throughout there? We don’t know the answer to that yet. There will be something that comes down the line, and have we frozen today where XML is, no probably not.
You probably see stories about the semantic web where we can apply certain technologies to do semantic searches and identify data in unstructured ways, but keys out the right data. This piece of data is not labeled address, but I know by the way it looks it’s an address. I can safely assume that’s an address just by doing a search with the right parameters on it.
There are some techniques that I think will be very interesting as we go forward. That’s one of the areas of innovation we will be looking at ACORD. What does come after XML? What are the things that we can look at that will provide a standard ontology or a standard way of describing the world that we have as we go forward?
You talk about the expansion, if you will, of ACORD and the challenges or opportunities for innovation and global expansion. Are there other areas where you see ACORD expanding? Beyond data standards, would ACORD be getting into data collection or is it already? Are there other areas where you can see ACORD performing a service?
Harnett: It’s interesting. I think that, as you said, we’ll go where our membership directs us, because we are member‑driven organization. The one thing I would say on that point though is in the past, if you look at some of the things ACORD did, you may or may not remember, but ACORD used to own IVANS. We had a network, and we provided a value‑added network to the industry.
In the past, the board ‑‑ I don’t know, 20 years ago ‑‑ decided, “Well, no, maybe it’d be better if the network was separated out from the standards organization,” so that was done. You could debate whether that was wise or not wise.
We have provided those kinds of services in the past. If the membership feels there’s a need to do something similar in the future, we’ll be ready to do it. Right now, we don’t have any plans to do anything but try and make sure that we develop the best data standards possible and we make them usable for a true global insurance business.
I think we’ve made a lot of effort there but this new focus on innovation I think is going to prepare us for the next thing to come. I couldn’t be more excited than to be at a board right now. That’s a great job.
I get that the IVANS example is telling us innovation can mean simplifying, too, and focusing, not necessarily expanding.
Hartnett: Oh, absolutely. I think innovation is as much about what you stop doing, as what you start doing. Probably some of the best innovations are, “Why are we doing this this way anymore? Why don’t we just stop doing all this other stuff, and focus on this instead.” Simplification can be the best form of innovation there is.
Bill, did we miss anything?
Hartnett: In my view, incremental doesn’t cut it anymore. As I said, we’re in an exponential world, and if you just focused on doing things marginally better year over year, you’re going to get left behind fairly quickly. What we’re focused on is trying to identify the big trends and the big disruptors.
How can we make a transformational change in the industry and not just an incremental change? I think that with incremental changes, you’re subject to getting hit by an asteroid and not realize it was coming. It thinks that’s a problem.
You also mentioned, “What are the disruptive forces we see?” I should probably share, out of the ACORD 20/20 report, and this is something that really was driven, as I said, by the membership, the three themes that came out of that, first of all, disruption was the central theme. Everybody had disruption on their mind.
There were three broad categories of disruption that people defined that they were concerned about. One was new players coming into the industry, and we’re starting to see evidence of that with Google Compare. That’s something that people see as either a threat and very serious. There’s another group of people think that of InsWeb 2.0. If you think back to the late ’90s, early 2000s, InsWeb was trying to do the same thing, and didn’t fare so well. I think because Google’s involved, this’ll be a little bit different, but we’ll see.
The next was new business models. The best example there was probably Zenefits…This whole concept of creating a software platform that you give away for free, and you monetize it by providing products and services through that free software platform is kind of an interesting approach. A platform like Zenefits comes in, that’s truly a threat. That’s another disruptive force that people are thinking about…
Finally, just the whole disruption from technology, which we talked a lot about, the Internet of Things, is the one that’s on everybody’s mind. The dangerous thing, maybe not dangerous, but the interesting thing about the Internet of Things is not the Internet. It’s the things. There’s these billions of devices out there that are spewing out data. Whether you want it or not, it’s out there for you to consume. Whether it’s telematics in cars or sensors in your home, the world is being instrumented in a very dramatic way. When you do that, in my view, you kind of de‑risk the world.
Insurance is about taking imperfect data about that past and trying to predict what might happen in the future. If you have real‑time data about what’s happening, and now you can stop things from happening before they do, because we know this car’s about to break down or the common thing from GE, we know when this jet engine’s going to blow up, so we can stop the plane crash because we’re going to take the engine out of service. We know when we left the stove on at home because we have a sensor on the stove that says, “Hey, you guys, you left, you left me on when you left the house. You want to shut me off remotely or do you want me to shut myself off?” We can stop fires.
The most common example is whether or not you believe in driverless cars, there’s autonomous assist technology that will significantly stop cars from running into each other and people from getting hurt in accidents. That’s going to dramatically change the structure of the personal auto industry.
Some people say there will be no personal auto industry in 10 years; it’ll now be all product liability for driverless cars. I’m not sure I buy that but it certainly means that there will be a dramatic decrease in frequency and severity of auto accidents, which means the premium structure in the business, is much different. You may still have a business but you can’t afford the same number of employees, you can’t afford the same big buildings in downtown Chicago or wherever you are. It’s a much different cost structure and revenue structure in the business.
Those three disruptive forces ‑‑ new players, new business models, new technologies ‑‑ are the ones that are on everybody’s mind. Those are the things that we’ll try and focus on in what I’m doing. We’re certainly not going to stop any of them but the question is, “How does the ACORD membership adapt to those disruptions?”
Can we disrupt ourselves before somebody comes along and does it for us? I’m sure the answer is yes, and that’s the guidance that I intend to give to ACORD, to the industry, “These are the things that are going to affect your future. Here’s what we think you can do about them. This is why you need to be a participant of ACORD because we’re looking all these things on behalf of the industry.”
There’s no need for every insurance company to have somebody like me that focused on the broad trends in society and technology. That’s a role that ACORD can play on behalf of the entire industry.
On the de‑risking, is it de‑risking or shifting of risk, or does it depend on what the disruptor is?
Hartnett: I think it somewhat depends on the disruptor but if you look at autonomous car insurance with all these sensors in there and the anti‑collision technology, it’s really taking risk away, where the risk doesn’t exist anymore.
If you look at some of the wearable technology, the Fitbit, and others, if you’re monitoring your health and your vital signs all the time, we can warn you that, “Hey, based on what we’re reading you might be having a heart attack. You better get to a hospital right away,” you can save a lot of lives.
That takes a lot of risk out the system. It’s no longer an unknown event. We can get real‑time predictors that indicate to us, because of big data and other algorithms that we have, that some bad event’s going to happen. If we can stop that bad event from happening, that’s good for everybody. It’s good for the insurance company; it’s good for the insured; it’s good for society. Taking what these sensors actually do in a meaning way, I believe de‑risks the world.
That doesn’t eliminate all risk, obviously. The world is still a risky place and there’s plenty of things to insure. It just may not be the things that we traditionally thought of as insurable. Maybe cars are not insurable in the future, except as product liability. Maybe homes don’t burn down as much, so there’s much less risk of fire, but there’ll be other things that happen to homes. Insurance is never going away.
As I like to say, “Insurance is the DNA of capitalism.” Without insurance, nothing else happens. To that extent, I think insurance is the best business in the world to be in. You need to know a lot about every other business in the world to do insurance appropriately. It’s a fascinating business to be in.
Bill, thank you for all your time and for sharing your thoughts on innovation.