- Jim Fowler joined Nationwide as its chief information officer after the insurer had overhauled its IT department and upgraded its tech platforms. He was charged with figuring out how those new systems could add value to the organization.
- Fowler spent the first 90 days talking to associates and customers, developing a strategy, and encouraging team members to pursue innovation. One way he did that was by sitting tech and operational teams together in the office.
- Fowler also created a culture where it is OK to fail. To mitigate any massive disruption, he urged teams to test out new offerings in a single market.
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Nationwide was in the “fourth quarter” of a digital modernization effort when Jim Fowler took the job of chief information officer at the insurer.
The company had already gone through the laborious tasks of modernizing many of its tech platforms and overhauling its IT team. So Fowler had the task of figuring out how the upgraded systems could begin to add value to the organization.
“We knew we needed to be able to disrupt ourselves,” he told Business Insider. “Our success is going to be in our ability to give the tools and technologies to the independent agents to meet members’ needs more readily.”
Among the platforms the company has rolled out since Fowler joined in 2018 is Nationwide Express, a tool that gives insurance agents a quote in less than 90 seconds. That allows the organization to compete against digital upstarts like Lemonade, which use artificial intelligence-powered platforms to quickly provider customers price estimates.
“It’s about ease of use and streamlining and providing a digital experience for agents to meet members, brokers to meet participants, with a product that’s more and more personalized as people go through life,” Fowler said.
A former CIO at General Electric, Fowler has over two decades of experience in IT-related issues. He shared the strategy used in the first 90 days as Nationwide’s information chief.
Taking a pulse-check of the organization and its customers
When Fowler went out to talk to business partners and customers in his first 30 days — including agents who sell Nationwide products and those who own insurance plans from the company — many weren’t accustomed to speaking to a chief information officer.
But instead of discussing highly technical topics that could alienate those without the proper background, Fowler talked about ways to use technology to change the processes at Nationwide. “That was probably new for them,” he said.
First, he would ask how both Nationwide and the customer make money to learn more about how best to deliver value for those members. Fowler would then press individuals on what Nationwide should continue to do and what it can do better.
“You get some really interesting answers when you put it in those terms,” he said.
Lastly, Fowler would ask: what can’t fail in the next six months? The answer helped determine which areas were critical to the success of the company.
Figuring out how tech capabilities can match the business needs
After soliciting feedback, Fowler worked with his team to establish an overarching strategy.
Chief among the guiding principles was the need to launch products faster, as well as address concerns among independent agents — or those who sell products from more than one insurer — who felt sidelined in the digital transformation effort. Nationwide is aiming to move entirely to an independent agent model by 2002.
Lastly, employees wanted a less structured environment. When an associate would request a change to an internal system, for example, it often went through as many as nine different people before getting to the person who would actually implement it. Now, it’s a more direct system.
“We very quickly identified ways that we could lean out our own processes to be more responsive,” Fowler said.
Driving the disruption by giving team members ‘permission’ to innovate
Key to Fowler implementing his vision was giving the business and technology teams the “permission” to innovate. Prior to his arrival, much of the opportunity for closer collaboration was squandered by barriers between the teams. A first step was making the two sectors sit together in the office.
In one instance, Fowler relocated those who managed life insurance policies with the corresponding technology team. At the start of that move, it took 41 days to get a life insurance application through the approval process. Now, over 40 percent of submissions are finished in less than six hours.
“We’re seeing huge increases in output and reductions in the cost of delivery,” he said.
Fowler also sought to give those individuals closest to the customer the ability to make decisions quickly. To make sure it went into effect in practice, he made his team agree upon a strategy and write it down as a guiding principle. That helped avoid everyone walking away “with a different idea of what that meant and how we wanted to drive that.”
‘We’re going to make some mistakes’: Why it has to be OK to fail
Perhaps most importantly, however, Fowler made it OK to fail.
“We’re an insurance company at our core. We don’t take risks lightly,” he said. “But don’t mistake expeditious for reckless. There’s a way to do it.”
To prevent any widespread disruption with the experimentation, Fowler would make team members take steps like segmenting a new product or service to a single market. He even made an example out of himself. Fowler, for example, decided to move the help desk for agents to a self-service model. Overnight, wait times went up tenfold and he quickly put 20 individuals back on the desk.
“Even at the leadership team, we’re going to make some mistakes and we’re going to correct quickly and move on,” Fowler said. “It’s OK to make some mistakes as long as you did it non-recklessly in a way that you can recover.”