Since then, there have been nearly 80 comments made by a wide variety of people, with an equally wide range of opinions. As can often happen in on-line discussions, positions were taken, attitudes were hardened and eventually some sort of stalemate was reached; probably as the protagonists were too weary to fight any more. In this respect seasoned IT professionals can be no different to teenagers discussing the merits of different genres of music! I certainly employed my method acting approach at a new level on this thread.
Patrick Gray believes that IT leaders still looking to find a seat at the C-level table might gain that influential position by taking a share of the responsibility for the failures that led to financial crisis.
It is certainly worth reading this article, but I recommend that you do so with an open mind.
Information is one of the key components of any IT organization (I would personally argue it’s more important than the technology aspect). Two facts disturb me when one looks at IT’s role in the financial crisis:
1) We in IT have been pushing data warehouse and business intelligence technology for years, saying these technologies should allow for “proactive” decision making at all levels of an organization, and an ability to spot trends and changes in a business’ underlying financial health.
2) The finance industry is usually spends more on IT than any other industry.
This being the case, if BI actually does what we’ve pitched it to do, shouldn’t one of these fancy analytical tools spotted the underlying roots of the financial crisis in at least one major bank? Is IT partially culpable for either not looking at the right data, or selling a bill of goods in terms of the “intelligence” aspect of BI?
I have written elsewhere on LinkedIn.com about business intelligence’s role in the financial crisis. My general take is that if the people who were committing organisations to collateralised debt obligations and other even more esoteric assent-backed securities were unable (or unwilling) to understand precisely the nature of the exposure that they were taking on, then how could this be reflected in BI systems. Good BI systems reflect business realities and risk is one of those realities. However if risk is as ill-understood as it appears to have been in many financial organisations, then it is difficult to see how BI (or indeed it’s sister area of business analytics) could have shed light where the layers of cobwebs were so dense.
So far, so orthodox, but Patrick’s question got me thinking along a different line, one that is more closely related to the ideas that I propounded in Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus last year. I started wondering, ‘is it just too easy for IT to say, “the business people did not understand the risks, so how were we expected to?”?’ (I think I have that punctuation right, but would welcome corrections from any experts reading this). This rather amorphous feeling was given some substance when I read some of the other responses.
However, I don’t want to focus too much on any one comment. My approach will be instead to take a more personal angle and describe some of the thoughts that the comments provoked in me (I am using “provoked” here in a positive sense, maybe “inspired” would have been a better choice of word). If you want to read my comments with the full context, then please click on the link above. What I am going to do here is to present some excerpts from each of my two lengthier contributions. The first of these is as follows (please note that I have also corrected a couple of typos and grammatical infelicities):
Rather than being defensive, and as a BI professional I would probably have every right to be so, I think that Patrick has at least half a point. If some organisations had avoided problems (or mitigated their impact) through the use of good BI (note the adjective) in the current climate, then BI people (me included) would rush to say how much we had contributed. I have certainly done this when the BI systems that I have implemented helped an organisation to swing from record losses to record profits.
Well if we are happy to do this, then we have to take some responsibility when things don’t go so well. It worries me when IT people say that non-IT managers are accountable for the business and IT is just accountable for IT. Surely in a well-functioning organisation, IT is one department that shares responsibility for business success with all the other front-line and service departments.
I have seen it argued with respect to failed financial institutions that IT can only provide information and that other executives take decisions. Well if this is the case, then I question how well the information has been designed to meet business needs and to drive decisions. To me this is evidence of bad BI (note the adjective again).
There are some specific mitigating factors for IT within the current climate, including poor internal (non-IT) governance and the fact that even the people who were writing some financial instruments did not understand the potential liabilities that the we taking on. If this is the case, then how can such risk be rolled up meaningfully? However these factors do not fully exculpate IT in my opinion. I am not suggesting for a second that IT take prime responsibility, but to claim no responsibility whatsoever is invidious.
So yes either poor information, or a lack of information (both of which are IT’s fault – as well as that of non-IT business folk) are a contributory factors to the current problems.
Also, while IT managers see themselves as responsible only for some collateral department, semi-detached from the rest of the business, we will see poor IT and poor information continuing to contribute to business failure.
This is the second passage:
I just wonder how it is that IT people at such firms can say that any failures are 100% nothing to do with them, as opposed to say 1% responsibility, or something of that nature.
Part of the role of professionals working in BI is to change the organisation so that numerical decision making (backed up of course by many other things, including experience and judgement) becomes part of the DNA. We are to blame for this not being the case in many organisations and can’t simply throw our hands up and say “wasn’t me”.
I will freely admit that there was a large dose of Devil’s Advocate in my two responses. As I have stated at the beginning of this piece, I am not so masochistic to believe that IT caused the current financial crisis, however I do not think that IT can be fully absolved of all blame.
My concerns about IT’s role relate to the situation that I see in some companies where IT is a department set apart, rather than being a central part of the overall business. In this type of circumstance (which is perhaps more common than anyone would like to think), the success of the IT and the non-IT parts of the business are decoupled.
Under these arrangements, it would be feasible for IT to be successful and the business to suffer major losses, or for the business to post record profits while IT fails to deliver projects. Of couse such decoupling can happen in other areas; for example Product A could have a stellar year, while Product B fails miserably – the same could happen with countries or regions. However there is something else here, a sense that IT can sometimes be an organisation within an organisation, in a way that other service departments generally are not.
Rather than expanding further on this concept here, I recommend you read Jim Anderson’s excellent article Here’s What’s Really Wrong With IT And How To Fix It on his blog, The Business of IT. I think that there is a good deal of alignment between Jim and I on this issue; indeed I was very encouraged to find his blog and see that his views were not a million miles from my own.
I would also like to thank Patrick for posting his initial question. It’s good when on-line forums lead you to take an alternative perspective on things.
Insurance – specifically Property Casualty Insurance – is the industry that I have worked within for the last twelve years. During this time, I managed teams spanning IT, Finance and Operations. However the successes that I am most proud of have been in the related fields of Business Intelligence and Cultural Transformation that appear in the title of this blog.
Insure/insho′or/ v.tr.1 secure the payment of a sum of money in the event of loss or damage to property, life a person etc. (O.E.D.)
Insurance is all about risk; evaluating risk, transferring risk, reducing risk. The essentials of the industry can be appreciated via a rather colourful fable provided in Success in Insurance (S.R. Diacon and R.L. Carter). This tale was originally told by someone at The Association of British Insurers:
Once upon a time there were 11 men; each of them owned a pig.
Unexpectedly one of the pigs died. The owner could not afford £90 for a new pig and so he had to leave the country and go to work in the town instead. The remaining 10 men went to see a wise man. ‘It could happen to any of us,’ they said. ‘What can we do?’
‘Could you each afford £10 for a new pig if your pig died?’ asked the wise man. They all agreed that they could manage that. ‘Very well,’ said the wise man. ‘If you each give me £10, I’ll buy you a pig if yours dies this year.’ They all agreed.
That year one pig did die. The price of pigs had gone up to £95 by now, but the wise man replaced the pig, so none of the men suffered and the wise man had £5 left for the trouble and risk he had taken.
Pricing Insurance products
Of course in the above example, there were two crucial factors for the wise man. First the outcome that only one pig actually died; if instead there had been two pig-related fatalities, the perhaps less-wise man would have been out-of-pocket by £90. Second, the related issue of him setting the price of the pig Insurance policy at £10; if it had been set at £9 he would again have suffered a loss. It is clear that it takes a wise man to make accurate predictions about future events and charge accordingly. In essence this is one thing that makes Insurance different to many other areas of business.
If you work in manufacturing, your job will of course have many challenges, but determining how much it costs to make one of your products should not be one of them. The constituent costs are mostly known and relatively easy to add up. They might include things such as: raw materials and parts; factory space and machinery; energy; staff salaries and benefits; marketing and advertising; and distribution. Knowing these amounts, it should be possible to price a product in such a way that revenue from sales normally exceeds costs of production.
In Insurance a very large part of the cost of production is, by definition, not known at the point at which prices are set. This is the amount that will eventually be paid out in claims; how many new pigs will need to be bought in the example above. If you consider areas such as asbestosis, it can immediately be seen that the cost of Insurance policies may be spread over many years or even decades. The only way to predict the eventual costs of an Insurance product with any degree of confidence, and thereby set its price, is to rely upon historical information to make informed predictions about future claims activity.
By itself, this aspect of Insurance places enormous emphasis on the availability of quality information to drive decisions, but there are other aspects of Insurance that reinforce this basic need.
In most areas of commerce the issue of how you get your product to market is a very important one. In Insurance, there are a range of questions in this area. Do you work with brokers or direct with customers? Do you partner with a third party – e.g. a bank, a supermarket or an association – to reach their customers?
Even for Insurance companies that mostly or exclusively work with brokers, which brokers? The broker community is diverse ranging from the large multinational brokers; to middle-sized organisations, that are nevertheless players in a given country or line of business; and to small independent brokers, with a given specialism or access to a niche market. Which segment should an Insurance company operate with, or should it deal with all sectors, but in different ways?
The way to determine an effective broker strategy is again through information about how these relationships have performed and in which ways they are trending. Sharing elements of this type of high-quality information with brokers (of course just about the business placed with them) is also a good way to deepen business relationships and positions the Insurer as a company that really understands the risks that it is underwriting.
At the beginning of this article I stated that Insurance is all about risk. As in the pig fable, it is about policy holders reducing their risk by transferring this to an Insurance company that pools these with other risks. External factors can impinge on this risk transfer. Hurricane season is is always a time of concern for Insurance companies with US property exposures, but over the last few years we have had our share of weather-related problems in Europe as well. The area of climate change is one that directly impinges upon Insurers and better understanding its potential impact is a major challenge for them.
With markets, companies, supply-chains and even labour becoming more global, Insurance programmes increasingly cover multiple countries and Insurance companies need to be present in more places (generally a policy covering risks in a country has to be written by a company – or subsidiary – based in that country). This means that Insurance professionals can depend less on first-hand experience of risks that may be on the other side of the world and instead need reliable and consistent information about trends in books of business.
The increasingly global aspect of Insurance also brings into focus different legal and regulatory regimes, which both directly impinge on Insurers and change the profile of risks faced by their customers. As we are experiencing in the current economic crisis, legal and regulatory regimes can sometimes change rapidly, altering exposures and impacting on pricing.
The present economic situation affects Insurance in the same ways that it does all companies, but there are also some specific Insurance challenges. First of all, with the value of companies declining in most markets, there is likely to be an uptick in litigation, leading to an increase in claims against Directors and Officers policies. Also falling property values mean that less Insurance is required to cover houses and factories, leading to a contraction in the market. Declining returns in equity and fixed income markets mean that one element of Insurance income – the return on premiums invested in the period between them being received and any claims being paid out – has become much less.
So shifts in climate, legal and regulatory regimes and economic conditions all present challenges in how risk is managed; further stressing the importance of excellent business intelligence in Insurnace.
The Insurance Cycle
If this litany of problems was not enough to convince the reader of the necessity of good information in Insurance, there is one further issue which makes managing all of the above issues even more complex. This is the fact that Insurance is a cyclical industry.
The above chart (which I put together based on data from Tillinghast) shows the performance of the London Marine Insurance market as a whole between 1985 to 2002. If you picked any other market in any other location, you would get a similar sinusoidal curve, though there might well be phase differences as the cycles for different types of Insurance are not all in lock-step.
To help readers without a background in Insurance, the ratio displayed is essentially a measure of the amount of money going out of an Insurance Company (mostly its operating expenses plus claims) divided by the amount of money coming in (mostly Insurance premiums). This is called the combined ratio. A combined ratio less than 100% broadly indicates a profit and one above 100% broadly indicates a loss.
It may be seen that the London Marine market as a whole has swung from profit to loss, to profit, to loss and back to profit over these 18 years. This article won’t cover the drivers of this phenomenon in any detail, but one factor is that when profits are being made, more capital is sucked into the market, which increases capacity, drives down costs and eventually erodes profitability. As with many things in life rather than stopping at break-even, this process overshoots resulting in losses and the withdrawal of capital. Prices then rise and profitability returns, starting a new cycle.
Given this environmental background to the Insurance business, it is obvious that it is very important to an Insurance company to work out its whereabouts in the cycle at any time. It is particularly crucial to anticipate turning points because this is when corporate strategies may need to change very rapidly. There may be a great opportunity for defence to change to attack, alternatively a previously expansionary strategy may need to be reined in order to weather a more trying business climate.
In order to make predictions about the future direction of the cycle, there is no substitute for having good information and using this to make sound analyses.
I hope that the article has managed to convey some of the special challenges faced by Insurance companies and why many of these dramatically increase the value of good business intelligence.
Essentially Insurance is all about making good decisions. Should I underwrite this newly presented risk? Should I renew an existing policy or not? What price should I set for a policy? When should I walk away from business? When should I aggressively expand? All of these decisions are wholly dependent on having high-quality information and because of this business intelligence can have an even greater leverage in Insurance than in other areas of industry.
Given this it is not unreasonable to state in closing that while good information is essential to any organisation, it is the very lifeblood of an Insurance company. My experience is that Business Intelligence offers the best way to meet these pressing business needs.
You can read more about my thoughts on Business Intelligence and Insurance in:
Thomas Wailgum has written an article at CIO.com in which he talks about continuing demand for BI, but adds that this, in turn, suggests that in many organisations BI has yet to deliver on its promise. As Thomas puts it:
“I see pent-up enterprise-wide frustration, aimed squarely at IT and CIOs for failing to give the business what it needs and deserves”
He sees the fundamental problem as being fragmented systems and stand-alone BI applications. This sounds like challenges that I have faced before. I agree that BI only realises it potential when a more strategic and wide-ranging approach is taken. Something I refer to in many places on this blog, but possibly most directly in Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI.
My basic point is that while it is sensible to take a pragmatic, incremental approach to implementing BI (collecting successes as you go and building momentum), this needs to be within the framework of a more encompassing vision for what the eventual BI system will be like and do.
I don’t believe that you can do BI by halves and remain somewhat sceptical about the claims of some of the newer BI products to do away with the necessary hard work.
Cindi Howson is the founder of BIScorecard, a Web site for in-depth BI product reviews. She has been using, implementing and evaluating business intelligence tools for more than 15 years. She is the author of Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets to Making BI a Killer App and Business Objects XI R2: The Complete Reference. She teaches for The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) and is a frequent speaker at industry events.
Given the number of articles that have touched on this area, I have taken my own advice from a previous post and created a WordPress category of “BI and the Economic Crisis”. Hopefully this will be a helpful starting point for people looking to access a range of thoughts on this important subject.
The full category may be viewed here and posts relating to it on this site appear here.
At this rate I am going to have to create a “BI and the economic crisis category”. In this latest article on ZDNet, James Kobielus from Forester Research explores whether the BI market is really recession-proof.
Rather than making generalisations, James considers the potentially diverging fortunes of different players with different product sets. He highlights the benefits of having functionality that extends beyond traditional “core BI” areas and of strong customer relationships; either mediated by the BI vendor’s own professional services organisations, or strong ties with the major consultancies. A final differentiator that James identifies is strength in the growth area of business analytics.
The article is a thoughtful and insightful one, which I would recommend reading.
Forrester Research, Inc. is an independent research company that provides pragmatic and forward-thinking advice to global leaders in business and technology. Forrester works with professionals in 19 key roles at major companies providing proprietary research, consumer insight, consulting, events, and peer-to-peer executive programs. For more than 25 years, Forrester has been making IT, marketing, and technology industry leaders successful every day. For more information, visit www.forrester.com.
James Kobielus serves Information & Knowledge Management professionals. He is a leading expert on data warehousing, predictive analytics, data mining, and complex event processing.
“Organizations will expect IT leaders in charge of BI and performance management initiatives to help transform and significantly improve their business,” said Nigel Rayner, research vice president of Gartner. “This year’s predictions focus on the need for BI and performance management to deliver greater business value.”
To me this immediately suggests one, potentially awkward, question – what on Earth have some BI initiatives been focussed on before 2009 if it was not transforming and improving business?
The BeyeNETWORK article by Nancy Williams provides an interesting perspective and some practical guidance for BI practitioners who are grappling with the current situation. It is and is well-worth reading.
BeyeNETWORK provides viewers with access to the thought leaders in business intelligence, performance management, business integration, information quality, data warehousing and more.
Nancy serves as Vice President of DecisionPath’s Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing Consulting practice. She has more than 17 years of consulting and management experience, and is a highly sought after authority on data warehousing and business intelligence issues. Nancy is a regular instructor at TDWI World and Regional Conferences and has taught the TDWI Fundamentals and Data Modelling courses for a number of Fortune 500 companies and Government agencies. She holds an MBA from the Darden School at the University of Virginia and a BS in Education from the University of Virginia.
The essence of the question was what key BI-related words would resonate with Executive teams. Here is what I said: –
“In an unfavourable economic climate, many companies will be thinking first about survival and defensive measures. Only the very best will consider this environment an opportunity, and the very best will already have established BI that this part of their corporate DNA. Let’s rule these paragons out and think about the rest of the herd.
If you are focussed on survival, then it is probably worth extending the metaphor to think about an animal that is in a daily life-or-death situation. It would want to have as much information about impending threats as possible (what can I see?, what can I hear?, what can I smell?, etc.). It will err on the side of caution assuming that half-glimpsed shapes are potential predators and act accordingly. It will want to understand its current environment (how far am I from a place to hide?, are there other animals around who might also be a target – reducing the risk for me?, what is the terrain like and how fast can I move over it?, are there any blind-spots around me?, etc.).
Translating this into a business arena, maybe you can pitch BI by saying that when every penny is precious, having an in-depth understanding of what you do, what it costs, and what value it generates is crucial. Also understanding trends in your book of business is important; am I starting to lose business, if so, what types and why?, are prices eroding, if so, for what products and in which territories?, where are the pain points?, are there any areas that are still doing well that I could focus on more?, etc.
BI can play a major part in identifying what is going well and what is going badly. It can also track the impact of your current tactics, be these aggressive or defensive. Maybe these are some themes that you could pick up on.
When the seas are very rough, having good navigational equipment becomes essential to avoid running aground. “
Since writing this article, I have penned some others in the same area and also found a number of interesting pieces elsewhere on the web. In response to this I have created a WordPress category “BI and the Economic Crisis“, which will hopefully provide a hub for this important area.