Sankar Narayanan, Director – IT, Aegon Religare Life Insurance (ARLI), believes that IT should be regarded merely as a path to achieve business goals—and nothing more. This however doesn’t mean that he underestimates IT’s importance in the insurance business. ARLI, for that matter, was the first company in India to introduce an online insurance plan in 2009.
Sankar, who has been with ARLI since its inception recalls: “Being a late entrant in India’s insurance market, we knew that we had to be innovative to make an impact. We did it with technology; we tried out things that were unheard of till then. For instance, the project management tools, CRM, intelligent voice response system, etc., were new at that time; we used them.”
An ongoing challenge
According to Sankar, compliance constitutes as one of the biggest challenges faced by insurance companies in India. Insurance Regulatory Authority of India (IRDA), the country’s apex regulatory body, issues various directives from time to time to be followed by the insurance players. In the last financial year, for instance, it directed the insurance companies to refresh their product-baskets to comply with its criteria such as minimum sum assured and transparency. Sankar informs that the compliance rule came with tight deadlines and impacted most product-lines. The IT team, he recalls, had to play the critical role of a change agent to deliver on schedule.
IT @ ARLI
The pioneer of online insurance in India, ARLI lays emphasis on creating scalable technology architecture delivering benefits of automation to every business function. The organization has implemented an enterprise portal that helps its staff to track and manage every business transaction and process, regardless of how small it is. The portal is accessible to all, right from management to operations to customer service to even the (external) distribution channels.
A significant IT project implemented by ARLI has been automated underwriting (AU). A core function in the insurance business, underwriting is at the heart of every product introduction. Taking advantage of the cloud delivery model, Sankar’s IT team managed to keep the project-costs low. The AU project has not only helped ARLI to speed up its operations but also to mitigate the attrition risk it faced in underwriting department year on year.
Some of the other key projects implemented by ARLI include AWD BPM from DST, sales force automation (with POS integration for quotations), procurement management system, incidence management system, and knowledge management portal.
You can’t be risk-averse and innovative at the same time
Sankar is now focusing on putting in place a full-fledged digital marketing strategy. He feels that digital marketing and its four pillars—social, mobile, analytics, and cloud—are gradually moving beyond the initial phase of hype and beginning to deliver strong business benefits. “Our investments in cloud and analytics are already delivering concrete benefits. Now we want to explore how the other two can be used for business growth,” he says.
According to Sankar, an insurer must be willing to experiment with new things, even if there is a risk of project-failure. He cites the example of ARLI’s deployment self-service kiosks at public places, an experiment that failed to deliver the desired results. “To stay ahead of competition, it’s important that we try out new things—new technologies, tools, or business models powered by technology. It is okay if some of these experiments fail. Innovation can happen only when insurers are not afraid of failure,” he says.
In addition to being the IT director, Sankar has now been made the head of new business operations, claims and renewals at ARLI. Commenting on this additional responsibility conferred upon him in January 2014, he says: “Being in IT, a CIO has a wonderful chance to learn about all the business departments. He must fully leverage that opportunity and prove useful for his organization by taking up new responsibilities.”