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Why speed is key for Zurich Insurance CDO’s masterplan

digitizing insurance digitizing insurance
Photo credit:

Dan Thibodeaux 

Steven Zuanella featured on Hot Topics' 100 leading digital change agents globally, introduces us to the radical customer-centric transformation occurring in the insurance sector.

“I think one year is the right amount of time [to understand a company] before you begin radical change, set about by your pre-approved plan.”

Zurich Insurance‘s CDO, Steven Zuanella, didn’t take one year to understand the company, he took 90 days.

His “90-day plan to understand where Zurich were at digitally” was followed by a second 90-day report that detailed the changes that needed to be made at the insurance company, including a “vision strategy and quick wins, culture change and other components essential to digital transformation.”

This agile, digital, mindset would have been at odds with the culture of the insurance industry only a few years ago.

Of all the industry sectors to respond to a need for company-wide, and customer-centric innovation, digitizing insurance has been one of the slowest to occur.

It hasn’t shouted as loud as financial services has about its new mobile banking apps, or been as noisy as retail has been with its consumer-first strategies.

However, digitizing insurance finally being realised as those in the industry realises the need to adapt to the technological changes taking place around it.

The past few years have seen an impact on the way claims are processed and policies assessed, and wider trends such as wearable technology and driverless cars may enable insurers to offer more personalized services.

For Zuanella, however, the remit of digitizing insurance encompasses more than just external trends – and occurs on a much faster timescale.

“The role for me at Zurich, and I would argue for any CDO, is to transform the way your business operates to be fit for the digital age now – not in five years’ time, or 10.”

This places immense pressure on one of the newest of C-suite roles.

As a ‘change agent’, a CDO’s task is to initiate a digital pivot after understanding the company and its processes, its staff and objectives; selling change to a company is nearly impossible without knowing it throughout to begin with.

This initial challenge should force you to consider the aim of the transformation, according to Zuanella.

“[Our aim] is getting a business that is fully aligned behind the needs of its digital customers, which requires us to act differently than we have done in the past, namely, with speed and agility.”

Listening to its customers, responding to requests, and adapting a company “within a matter of weeks or months, and not years” is the pace at which Zuanella has set his transformation, no matter who he engages with.

“Be they brokers or individuals, councils, companies or governments, we need to be able to interact with every stakeholder as part of an omnichannel offering, as that’s the only way we’re going to be able to succeed here.”

Offering a comprehensive service package is answering the needs of their regular consumers – “[customers] have been biting our arms off to get digital with us” – while recognizing that other people may prefer working offline.

“We want to be able to give customers that choice because it’s important for their experience. For us, it’s all about the incremental service approach rather than huge, blanket, programmes which served insurance well in the past, but won’t succeed going forward.”

These examples of change mirror the ways other industries have been responding to the uptake of digital strategies over the past five years: omni-channel experiences; personalization; and experience-first thinking, are all consumer-centric strategies that are already high on the agenda in say, retail, are much newer to the digitizing insurance sector.

But one position which the newly digitizing insurance industry feels most keenly compared to the wider others is risk.

Zuanella says digital transformations can be highly charged with elements of uncertainty that don’t always sit naturally within the culture of insurance.

“Inherent alongside risk though is the value of being able to fail fast while learning on the job and I have to bring that to the table.”

Digital transformations do not happen overnight, and are not judged in years, Zuanella continues. Rather they are iterative and need constant revisiting giving everyone the opportunity to “learn from their mistakes, and move on.”

Of course, ‘company-wide transitions’ means exactly what the phrase suggests; when a CDO initiates change, people as well as a business must digitize.

That requires a cultural shift of focus, which can be more difficult depending on what sector you operate in, Zurich’s CDO explains.

“We need to make sure innovation is part of everyone’s jobs…that means finding better ways of doing things digitally within every task, and not having an innovation or digital department in a corner.”

Listening to Zuanella cite the who, the what, the where and the why of digitizing insurance, widens the scope for change that he holds in his hands.

Whilst other executives have had the ability to focus their efforts within a department, Zuanella and his peers have been tasked with connecting these silos and streamlining the organisation.

“My role at Zurich is very broad and involves a lot of discussion and education from executive members, to leaders, to front-line troops, each looking at how they’re set up to succeed or not, or whether our commercial models are solid…”

Zuanella says his role ranges from “technology, to culture change, to leadership and communications”, forcing him to engage with the organization as a whole with the aim of future-proofing its position – despite the possibility “you are proverbially stepping on everybody’s toes.”

With the scope to make clear and far reaching changes to an organization, the CDO role could be seen as an enviable position to hold, but, despite Zuanella’s earlier declaration of bringing about change now, the logistics of such a remit often impede progress.

“The time it takes to implement a CDO strategy is sector dependent; digitizing insurance is complicated and Zurich as a brand has multiple business units and customer sets, thousands of products and hundreds of legacy systems combined with acquisitions in the past that have not been fully integrated.”

Complexity within a network needs to be understood before it can be improved and it’s not always easy to reconcile that point over a period of time.

“In many organisations I’ve seen activity for activity’s sake, everybody doing tactical things without remembering to look at the big picture – ‘busy fool’ syndrome – so there should be a real push to cement a coordinated vision.”

In parallel to this mindset, CDO’s are expected to drive delivery on the ground too, which requires help from the CEO.

“I always tell tech CEOs that you need to tell a story which is compelling, and describes where we’re going that everybody inside and outside of the company can understand.”

It’s knowledge and vision that a CDO brings to a company: previously undefined and unknown understanding of a company’s operations and the potential of its culture and workforce, combined with insight into how they can be improved using digital methods.

It’s for this reason that the tech community has been asking itself whether CDOs have positioned themselves as natural successors to CEOs, and Zuanella doesn’t disagree.

“My view is that digital has become the main business driver of all organisations, so there is a definite role for the CDO in the future.”