As it appeared in forbes.com, by Jason Bloomberg
April 19, 2017
Since its founding in 1863, Zurich-based Swiss Re has seen many changes to its business and the world at large. Today’s turbulent business environment, however, is forcing Swiss Re to change faster and more comprehensively than any other time in its history.
I recently interviewed Rainer Baumann, CIO of Information and Managing Director at Swiss Re, to understand the level of transformation the company is undergoing. “We’re a 150-year-old reinsurance company facing a pace of change we’ve never experienced before,” Baumann said. “The rate of change is accelerating and people are highly challenged.”
In fact, Swiss Re’s digital transformation cuts across all aspects of its business, including its employees, its IT environment, and most importantly, how it serves its insurance clients.
As a reinsurer, the company primarily sells ‘wholesale’ insurance to other carriers, allowing them to spread their risk. As a result, Swiss Re has historically had little or no interaction with the end-customer businesses and individuals seeking insurance coverage.
With digital transformation, however, the focus on end-customers is significantly increasing. “The digital services we’re offering are tools to analyze risk portfolios, circumstantial risks, and assess claims,” Baumann explained. “These services enrich the capabilities of our primary insurance partners.”
In other words, Swiss Re is developing digital services for its own insurance clients to use with their end-customers. “We’re getting closer to the policy holder,” Baumann added. “We’re now able to relate to policy holders and are putting them more at the center.”
Swiss Re’s iconic London building, image by jo.sau
Digitally Transforming Swiss Re’s Employees
Insurance clients and end-customers may be at the center of Swiss Re’s digital transformation, but its deep understanding of risk and how to price it is the company’s primary differentiator. This knowledge, however, is spread across the organization. “The key question: which ten experts do you need to get into a room?” Baumann explained. “How do you codify knowledge and ensure that knowledge permeates the organization?”
Spreading this tribal knowledge while also dealing with the increasing rate of change boils down to a collaboration challenge. To up its collaboration game, Swiss Re turned to the cloud.
The starting point for this new ‘digital workplace’: Microsoft Office 365 and SharePoint in the cloud. These products alone, however, only scratch the surface of Swiss Re’s complex collaboration requirements.
In reality, the company is fleshing out an entire digital ecosystem for its employees. “We’re including addons from Harmon.ie for smart collaboration, document access and integration. MobileIron for access to IOS on the iPhone,” Baumann said. “Our vision is a cutting-edge workplace on the latest technology.”
This evolution is not without its challenges, however. “It’s a huge transformation and adoption challenge internally,” Baumann pointed out. “People do not like to work according to a given mainstream workplace setting. Accordingly, we have to empower employees to choose how they work, not how we think they should.”
Reinventing the Service Desk
Swiss Re’s digital transformation reaches as far as the service desk, which is also part of its all-cloud strategy. “We have a large, end-to-end capability on ServiceNow (NYSE: NOW),” Baumann said. “It now includes HR, logistics, even legal. It also provides back-end ticket management, automatic fulfillment, tracking, and rights management.”
ServiceNow is only part of Swiss Re’s service desk story. “Everyone has access to the service desk for all needs,” Baumann continued. “To simplify our support for our users, we combined the service desk for logistics, HR, IT and other corporate functions under one phone number.”
Artificial intelligence also plays a role on Swiss Re’s service desk. “A search engine doesn’t make a big difference. Curation of data is more important,” Baumann explained. “We use IBM Watson to answer user requests from the service desk, and Starmind connects experts’ intelligence around a question.”
Moving Legacy to the Cloud
Swiss Re’s digital transformation reaches as far as its back office – which is also in the process of moving to the cloud. “We aspire to no on-premises infrastructure by the end of 2018,” Baumann said – but he admits that a more realistic target for that date is more like 60%. “By 2020, however, we expect 95% of our infrastructure to be off-premises.”
This move to the cloud requires both organizational as well as technological transformation. “It’s a major transformation toward cloud,” Baumann explained. “Empowered, business-focused IT efforts end-to-end.”
One major sticking point: Swiss Re’s financial system, which runs on a mainframe. “We’re trying to move away from the mainframe, but we still have financials on it,” Baumann said. “Our goal move all infrastructure out of house.”
Part of the solution: moving to SAP , an unusual step for an enterprise undergoing such comprehensive digital transformation. In Swiss Re’s case, however, SAP has stepped up to the plate as an effective partner. “We’re pushing SAP to the cloud,” Baumann said. “We’re a flagship SAP customer. It didn’t have outstanding insurance capabilities, but now the SAP Insurance Analyzer product is an SAP/Swiss Re joint venture.”
In the final analysis, Swiss Re’s digital transformation is progressing well, in spite of a number of bumps along the way. Nevertheless, Baumann remained sanguine. “We have an aggressive digital IT strategy,” he said. “We’re about 30% into the journey.” As long as it remains focused on its insurance clients, end-customers and employees, Swiss Re will remain a leader in the digital age.