After the thrills and spills of the global credit crunch, the insurance industry now faces yet another big test - the new EU-wide regulatory regime known as Solvency II. And of course CIOs will be at the heart of the action in the run-up to October 2012 when the new regulations take effect.
Amazingly, however, surveys carried out in the UK this year show that a significant proportion of insurance companies have yet to put Solvency II firmly on their radar. And of those who have embarked on a compliance programme, however tentative, many are determined to adopt a purely reactive, minimal-budget approach.
Everyone can understand the motivation behind Solvency II, with its focus on corporate risk management, corporate governance and transparency in financial reporting. After all, we have seen several examples from recent history of famous-name companies bankrupted, or brought close to bankruptcy, because of inadequate controls at the corporate level. What makes that even sadder is that in most cases the great majority of divisions within the company were healthily profitable: the company was devastated by the misdeeds of a single rogue division.
So Solvency II is a well-understood necessity and not a resented piece of bureaucratic interference. But can it be achieved by October 2012?
Experience - for example from Basel II in the banking world - shows that three years is in reality a tight timescale in which to design, test and implement the kind of new enterprise-spanning IT systems that will be needed simply to achieve the most basic compliance. And of course IT systems are by no means the only elements requiring change. Many business processes and practices will also have to be modified, in some cases drastically.
So one key message has to be - if you haven't got your Solvency II programme in place, get started right now as a matter of urgency.
But even more important than when you do it, is how you do it. That is because, with the right approach, a Solvency II programme can be the very opposite of a major cost burden. It can be one of your greatest ever sources of additional profit. Why is this so? Well, just reflect that insurance is arguably the information business par excellence - and has been ever since it was invented a few centuries ago. Clearly the rise of the actuarial profession has led over time to information ever more detailed and comprehensive, and to ever smarter ways of using that information for business profitability. And because the requirements of Solvency II apply to the business as a whole, not just the individual business units, they present insurance companies with an unparalleled opportunity to review not just corporate risk but also profitability across the business.
Intelligently designed and implemented, the kind of corporate information warehouse you will need to satisfy the new requirements will also enable you to analyse product profitability and client segment profitability on a consistent and ongoing basis. It will also inevitably highlight many opportunities for cross-selling and also, in many cases, expose gaps in your portfolio that could profitably be filled by new products.
As with any major programme of business change, stakeholder engagement will be key to success. In particular, the board of directors and senior managers from across the business will need to understand the requirements, implications and opportunities within Solvency II. And, as with all programmes of this magnitude, you will need to seek and obtain a high-level executive sponsor.
There is also the practical problem of how to get such a programme up and running - and completed by a fixed and legally unalterable deadline?
In theory you could carry the whole burden yourself with your existing staff. However experience of other regulatory compliance programmes suggests that although this can succeed, it's not easy to address such a major challenge while continuing with the day job.
A second option is to recruit additional staff with the right knowledge or experience of insurance, compliance, change programmes and enterprise-wide IT. However you will find that the iron laws of supply and demand (for skilled staff) are very much against you. Those companies who started their Solvency II programmes early have already scooped most of the skilled talent.
A third option is of course to work with external partners. Fortunately most major (and some minor) consultancies have been quick to realise the importance of the issue, to study it in depth, and develop carefully designed programmes that they can offer to clients almost on an out-of-the-box basis. Good news, surely, for hard-pressed CIOs - as is the fact that the technology to implement a Solvency II programme is there, and not waiting to be invented. And the same applies to the tools and techniques - the route-map if you like - required to put the new processes and new technology in place. No-one is asking the CIO to explore and tame virgin territory, alone and unaided.
So my advice is first, take the trouble to understand how Solvency II can mean profit, not cost, for your business. Second, think hard about using existing staff, new staff or external partners. And third - if you haven't done so already, act urgently to get your Solvency II programme up and running.