In 2017, researchers
from QBE‘s Digital Innovation Lab filled a
soon-to-be-demolished residence in Wisconsin with smart home tech, including
Google Homes and Amazon Alexas. Once everything was connected and configured,
they set the house on fire.
“If you had all
these devices that you rely on heavily at home and a fire occurred what would
their reaction be?” explains the global lab’s chief Jesmin Gill.
It turns out, not much
of a reaction at all.
“Could we say if
you have these devices your home is a bit more safe or that you’re protected through
early warning? But no. Doesn’t do anything. Just expensive tech burning
down!” Gill tells CIO Australia.
Other experiments in
recent years have seen drones scrambled in the wake of a natural disaster
to assess and process insurance
claims faster and IoT sensors fitted to farm machinery to detect
promise from these proof-of-concepts, over the past eight months, the insurer
has adjusted its stance on innovation. Although the “horizon three”
research into things like blockchain and quantum computing continues, Gill says
the focus now is on “things that are more practical for the
“What could we
actually prototype that the business can start putting in place today?”
QBE is Australia’s largest
global insurer. It established its innovation lab in 2016 to help it ‘make a
call’ on which emerging technologies could improve its business, and which were
establishment came before a period of big losses, class actions and the departure
of CEO John Neal in 2017. Under new
chief executive Pat Regan, the company has become, in his words “simplified
and more focused” – or as some
have put it “a boring, sensible QBE”.
In turn, the labs are
becoming increasingly focused on developing pragmatic, practical innovations.
“There are a lot of CIOs
and CTOs with innovation labs. Atlassian or Google throwing millions at R&D
makes sense, but we’re a financial institution so we’ve got to be pragmatic. The
underpinning challenge…is we do want to come up with robotics and exciting
tech, but we’ve also got to be practical,” Gill says.
“In insurance there’s a
lot organisations that have started (an innovation lab) and shut it down. Or it
became the thing to do but it didn’t succeed…We’ve got to find a way to bridge the
gap between amazing technology and what the business needs are now and what our
customers are asking for at a simple level. So you can give them all the whizz-bang
but if they don’t know who to call for their claim, is that really a good
experience?” she adds.
A recent output of the more
pragmatic innovation effort is a proactive messaging service, which sends
customers in areas due to be hit by extreme weather information about how to
claim if their property is damaged.
“Our internal team
can assess the weather patterns and based on that send out an email to a certain
customers that we think will be impacted by a storm or fire or catastrophe,”
The message tells the
customer a storm or hurricane is on its way and gives safety advice. It then
points customers towards a ‘first notice of loss’ form on QBE’s website, the
first step in the claims process.
“Rather than putting the
customer in the position where they’re scrambling around trying to find their
details, trying to figure out am I insured am I not, they can let us know
straight away. And one of our team will call back within 24 hours,” Gill says.
Following a positive response
from customers and the business to a limited trial in areas affected by Hurricanes
Michael and Florence in the US last year, QBE is now considering bringing the feature to
Australia with a few tweaks.
“We can experiment
but we can deliver real value today,” Gill says. “Proactive messaging, it may
not be complex technology but it delivered something of value for our
customers, a gap, we solved a problem.”
This year QBE will host a
series of hackathons. By bring technology experts from the lab and teams from
the business together, it is hoped some other practical, nearer-term ideas will
emerge. Through the hackathons the lab will “see the problems of the business
and use that as a springboard” Gill says.
The firm is also
prototyping a redesigned web portal for brokers, which will feature a number of
“We’ve got a lot of
things we’d love to do, its sifting through that and making sure we’ve got the
right mix,” Gill says.
Finding the balance is
essential, Gill explains.
“We are walking a
tightrope because as soon you show you’re not delivering value back to the
organisation…There’s a constant navigation,” she says.
A perennial problem of
introducing innovative ideas to large enterprises is that of adoption.
Gill says within QBE
there is an “old guard” with a “traditional way of thinking” while other areas
are “really wanting to embrace” new ways of working
“It’s a large
organisation. Some teams are ahead of the curve, some, particularly the financial
side is still quite manual. And being a global team, things we accept as normal
here is not normal there. It’s navigating and negotiating that,” she explains.
“We can come up with
some whizz-bang, really creative idea, but if people want to keep clicking
their spreadsheets, because they don’t want to change their behaviour, even though
they’ve got something that could do it automatically for them – that’s a
mindset change,” Gill says. “It’s balancing the two. It’s about walking before
you can run.”
Although the effort
continues to convince some business units to ditch manual processing and “lots
of paper” the lab nevertheless is keeping horizon three concepts in mind.
Gill is inspired by
Microsoft and its creation of the Xbox. The console was Microsoft’s first foray
into the gaming console market, a completely new direction for the
traditionally software focused firm.
“The challenge for us as
an organisation is – what is our Xbox? What is that ultimate goal? How do we
start implementing and prototyping aspects of that…so in ten years’ time we’re
like, of course that’s what QBE does,” Gill
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