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Matt Potashnick, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at insurance company AXA UK & Ireland, discusses the changing role of the CIO, his priorities for the year ahead and how automation and robotic process automation (RPA) are freeing up staff to work on more valuable tasks.

Potashnick has been AXA UK CIO since January 2017 and has a broad IT background. Formerly IT director at Churchill Insurance and the Royal Bank of Scotland, as well as technical director at Swiftcover.com, he has quickly come to realise that his latest role as CIO of AXA UK and Ireland is as much about education and conversation as it is about what sits in the technology stack.

“My role as CIO has changed dramatically. My role now is more influencing the ExCom (executive committee) and board members,” he told CIO.co.uk. “There is so much emerging technology out there, but deploying tech is a tricky business because you have to deploy technology that actually solves business problems.

“For me, [the role] is about influencing key stakeholders and embedding IT at the heart of the business.”

Yet embedding IT at the heart of business can be challenging given the pace of change in technology, and the dynamics of a large insurer which employs thousands of employees across numerous offices. This isn’t a unique challenge, of course – a 2016 report from Genpact’s research arm found that 68% of insurance companies saw legacy IT systems as their biggest obstacle to digital transformation.

As such, Potashnick explains that his priorities for the year ahead are set on simplifying an increasingly complicated IT landscape, with public and private cloud very much at the epicentre of this change.

“The important priorities for the year ahead are quite simple. As you can imagine as an organisation, not only in the UK and Ireland but also globally, it’s all about platform simplification and rationalisation. Over the years, we’ve amassed a number of technologies, so for me it’s really about simplifying that landscape.”

He says that this effort is supported from the top down, because it’s a ‘numbers game’.  “The more systems you have the more cost you amass – so for me it’s quite simple way to influence the board.”

What’s the role of automation and RPA?

Part of this simplification is being aided by the role of automation, and specifically robotic process automation (RPA).

Defined by Deloitte as a way to “to automate repetitive and rule-based processes”, RPA can be loosely seen as applying technology, which is in turn governed by business logic and structured inputs, resulting in automating specific business processes.

As CIO.com describes, using RPA tools, a company could configure software, or a “robot,” to capture and interpret applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems. RPA scenarios range can include things like payroll processing, automating jobs in an ERP system or transferring data from one system to another.

At Gartner’s SSVR 2017 conference, Gartner chief of research and distinguished analyst Fran Karamouzis said that 96% of the company’s clients were “getting real value from RPA”, but Ernst and Young's latest RPA report declared it had seen up to 50% of initial  RPA implementations fail – perhaps highlighting the fine margins between success and failure.

Potashnick reveals that AXA has been working with UI. Path, the platform for Enterprise Robotic Process Automation (RPA), to automate a number of areas, such as claims processing. He says a key to its success has been cross-training business and IT staff in RPA, so that business ‘feels empowered’ to use these solutions.

Citing the claims processing example, he said that – as a highly-regulated entity – AXA must ask a number of repetitive questions, but these can be automated to a large degree, enabling claims handlers to be “more engaging with the claimant at that time.”

 “This has really helped us free up claims handlers to engage our customers more directly rather than dealing with the process.”

Of course, Potashnick is not alone here amongst peers - fellow insurer Markerstudy recently revealed it partnered with DataRobot to improve the machine learning capabilities that determine its insurance pricing, while United Utilities CIO more recently discussed rolling out RPA to automate manual tasks through robots, so far saving over 20,000 manual hours of work.

As such, the role of automation cannot be overstated; a ServiceNow study has found that almost half (46%) of ITDMs want greater automation to deal with the volume of tasks being generated in their companies, with 85% saying they would need to increase automation by 2020.

For Potashnick, this automation is a real opportunity to move staff to value-add roles. “It’s a huge area of opportunity…not only for processes, but also to free staff up from doing mundane processes.”

“We need automation because we need to look and go back to the processes we’ve put in place and which have just grown, so we can free staff up to do more productive things, and be more customer engaging rather than doing cut-paste repeat process all the time.”

At the same time, he warns that automation in itself is not the answer unless the business reasons have been properly considered. “Putting tech over a broken process just adds more tech. So, actually, going back to the source to see if can improve process or remove entirely is our stance on RPA”.

Click here to watch the video on YouTube.