The Hartford CIO Eyes Business Impact Of IT

David Annis has been group senior vice president and CIO of Information Technology at The Hartford, in Hartford, Conn., since August 1999. The Hartford is a provider of investment products, life insurance and group and employee benefits; automobile and homeowners products; business insurance; and reinsurance. The company is the largest seller of individual annuities in the U.S. Annis has been with The Hartford for 19 years. Prior to his appointment as CIO, he served as senior vice president of Property and Casualty systems. He holds a bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from the University of Maine. Annis is a graduate of the AICPCU (American Institute for Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters)/Advanced Executive Education Program at Wharton. He served as chairman of the LOMA Property Casualty Committee. He is currently a member of The Research Board and participates in various industry and technology forums.

Q: Your degree is in electrical engineering. How did you segue into information technology and why?

I was always interested in technology. That’s how I got into the electrical engineering program in college. My interest was the business application of technology, and I really wasn’t interested in being a design engineer for 40 years, so after I got my undergraduate degree I went right into the MBA program with the idea that I wanted to get into technology management/technology application for business. I was recruited out of business school by EDS back in the ’70s and went through their systems engineering program and got the bug for information technology there and stayed with it ever since. It really was a great experience back in those early days because there were a lot of talented people working for the company at the time, so it was a great learning experience.

The work I did for EDS was predominantly consulting assignments on large projects for customers. It included health care companies, oil companies, utility companies. We were looking at how to use technology to make their business more effective, efficient and competitive. The culture at that time was certainly one of not just a focus on delivering results and delivering business impact but on schedule and under budget and meeting expectations and more, so that was the culture I was raised in for my early years.

Q: Both The Hartford and you personally have received some awards recently for technology innovation. What are some of the projects you have underway that warrant this recognition?

To put this in perspective, my feeling is these external awards and recognition that the company has received are nice but it’s kind of not what we’re really about. The measure that’s really important to us is the impact the technology deliverables have on the business. So if we’re providing great technology that provides terrific service to the company and helps us win more business…then we’re successful. The awards are a nice form of recognition for the staff and people in the company because they do acknowledge you’ve accomplished something meaningful and frankly, in the workplace we tend to finish one project and solve one problem and move on to the next. Celebrations are important but they’re short and sweet…so the outside recognition serves a purpose, but it’s secondary to having an impact on the business.

Part of [the reason for the recognition] is I think we’ve tended to be early to market with some business capabilities that were technology enabled and that’s always been important as part of our company’s competitive strategy. We don’t want one thing to set us apart because if you have one thing someone else is going to figure it out and copy it…technology is clearly part of our business strategy and we want to use it as a vehicle to provide great service to customers…and design and implement innovative solutions for our customers. That drives us on the technology side to be a little bit more aggressive. That said, we’re never pushing technology for the sake of technology because it’s new fun and interesting. We’re pushing it if we think it will have a significant business impact.

We had some large customer service applications with integrated imaging which contributed to us receiving customer service awards for a number of years. We’ve been an early adopter of XML technology and have implemented real time business to business interfaces with a number of independent agents…meaning what we’ve done is created the capability for independent agents to come through a portal through a secure extranet to get access to tools that help them sell to their customers.

We also created products where a distributor might have an automated system that can talk to our automated system, so an agent can work inside their existing automation environment and that communicates with our system behind the scenes, so they can do real time insurance quotes, for example. So we’ve been able to drive out work and improve cycle time by doing that. Whatever they need to serve the customer. Those examples are just a couple over the last few years where we’ve been early to market with capabilities that helped us grow our business. We continue to raise the bar on the things that make us easy to do business with and provide extraordinary service, and some of the newer things include working with speech recognition technologies, working with sophisticated voice response technology using some something called Voice XML.

Generally we’re looking to continue to raise the bar on what we can do from a service standpoint. The bottom line is we want to be easy to do business with for customers and distributors and we want to do it the way they want to do it and that means having multiple options available. We probably have more distributors and electronic connections to trading partners and more options than just about anyone in our industry.

CRM is a big focus. Over the years weve made significant investments in our call center technology — and that work continues. Depending on the product line, we generally operate in all 50 states. There’s a pretty wide variety of products and services we provide.

Q: What’s your view on the implementation of new technologies and bleeding edge versus a more conservative approach?

I think our philosophy is to be near the bleeding edge but not bleeding. It’s a very tough balancing act because we want to be early with technologies that can have a real business impact. We would never opt to be early with a technology just because we thought it was cool. Our screen is, is the potential advantage to the business adequate to justify the risk of being an early adopter, and where we think it is we’ll be a little more aggressive. Where we don’t think it is we’ll be a fast follower. The whole development of our e-business platform, certainly within our industry we were aggressive in creating [one] for our company. It included a number of common components that could be used across our businesses because we felt the ability to do business over the Web would be a critical competitive issue. I think we put up our first Web site in 1994 but we were making pretty aggressive investments in e-business technologies in ’99-2000 and as a result we’ve been able to build some of these electronic connections to distributors and trading partners earlier than most.

On the flip side, Linux is a new technology — it’s only over last couple of years that companies have been more aggressive in using it for larger commercial applications. There’s a lot of hype around that, and we felt we didn’t want to be an early adopter of that, because we didn’t see a real direct impact on the business. Now as companies are starting to have some success with Linux as another platform that might have some price performance advantages, we decided it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start testing out what it takes to install Linux, get applications up and running on the system and support it. We’re installing Linux on a server and will be moving a sample life application on to the operating system. This is strictly a test at this point. That’s one example of where we went a little slower because we didnt see the direct business impact on customers.

Q: What are the ingredients of a good vendor relationship?

That’s an interesting topic because in the technology business your top vendors are really critical to your success over time and while you’re not going to be best friends with your top vendors you really have to have a good working relationship with them. There’s a number of things that are important and it starts with honesty and integrity. You’ve got to be able to negotiate hard with your vendors to get good cost-effective deals for the company. But once the contracts are done you’re going to work closely together for a number of years and you really rely on vendors to deliver what they promised and you have to honest with them about what’s important and what is not and you have to make sure you have contacts and relationships at the senior levels with your most important vendors. I think you’ve got to make sure your on-site account teams are doing a great job and know what’ expected of them and that they’e recognized and rewarded for doing a good job. I’ a firm believe that you can negotiate hard and get good deals with vendors and hold their feet to the fire on delivery but have a relationship that’ good for both parties.