Insurance Companies: Putting Generalists Above Specialists for Technology Transformation Project

Insurance Companies and Takaful Operators | In Technology Transformation Project

I read K. Ram Sundaram’s article on Why It Is Important To Put Generalists Above Specialists for Your Technology Transformation Project at Insurance & Technology website with interest for I tend to think there are elements of truth to what he had opined in that article. Let me rewrite certain part of his article and perhaps with some of his quotable quotes from the perspectives of my own experience dealing with the execution of major IT system implementation….

Fine-grained specialists are often uniquely qualified to support and maintain the carrier’s status quo Information Technology (IT) platforms. Unfortunately, they are also just as uniquely unqualified to manage and execute a major upgrade or change to those platforms.

Having sat through last week meeting to discuss the replacement of the company’s existing core backend system that everyone was fast to determine that the system has reached its limit and unlikely for it to achieve newer things in time to come. Usually IT personnel don’t tell the decision makers as to the exact reasons for the change for much of those reasons given were more along the following lines of argument:

  • The system is already old and running on a 3rd generation (3GL) platform thus it is difficult to recruit and maintain younger staff force to administrate the system
  • The system is overly customised over the years and therefore lack available fields to carry out enhancement
  • Some of the modules within the current core system were poorly developed (or customised) over the years thus pose lots of problem for efficient functioning of the overall system

The said article quoted….

There’s an old joke that an expert is someone who keeps learning more and more about an ever-narrower subject until he knows everything about almost nothing. The joke is funny because it’s an exaggeration but yet having some truth in it.

When tackling major technology upgrades, most insurance companies rely heavily on subject-matter experts — fine-grained specialists who are well versed in  specific area of business or technology, whether it’s billing, or claims, or policy processing. But when specialists are asked to assume generalist and even leadership roles in major initiatives, they often don’t have the broad vision needed…. most would merely grope around with the micros!

While both types are needed on projects, you must have generalists with a grasp of system architecture and business issues directing the overall strategy. Otherwise, it’s like putting up a big building without a lead architect and relying on the electricians, plumbers and carpenters to do the job by themselves.

More often than not insurance companies make the mistake of assuming that the more product and technical specialists they have on their project teams, the better the overall outcome. Many if not most actually require their technical specialist to head any of their technology enabled transformation projects… In fact the opposite is true.

A Serious Need To Have Any Larger ICT Initiatives Speadheaded By A Generalist….

Insurance companies need to rethink their reliance on specialists for their larger initiatives and instead focus on using “coarse-grained” generalists who bring a more holistic and enterprise view of the initiative to the table.

For decades the IT profession and the insurance industry have encouraged the development of narrowed skills that require specific technical expertise and certification. Insurance companies hire specialists, and once on board they tend to further specialize, coalescing their talents around the specific and often unique application and infrastructure platforms in use.

As a result, these fine-grained specialists are often uniquely qualified to support and maintain the insurer’s status quo platforms. Unfortunately, they are also just as uniquely unqualified to manage and execute a major upgrade or change to those platforms. It’s not surprising that someone who has spent a career becoming more skilled in a narrow area probably won’t succeed when thrust into a role demanding broad technical, leadership and business skills.

The symptoms of impending failure — such as lagging behind schedule and failing to meet budgeted parameters — are obvious but that does not make them any easier to deal with. These symptoms usually point to deeper problems that revolve around team structure and dynamics, particularly when a number of product and technical specialists are involved.

K. Ram further points…. many specialists do not have the experience required to work in broad and experientially diverse project teams, they tend to cocoon from a team perspective and only engage on what is important and understandable to them.

This can lead to issues such as a lack of role clarity on teams, poor team integration and effectiveness, ineffective communication, individual priorities that compete with those of the team, and a decided lack of ownership and accountability. Over time, all those problems fester, grow and interact with each other. You could call it negative synergy. Eventually, the project goes off the rails.

One Great Solution…. Is To Draw On Available Generalists Coming From The Pool Of Operational Talents

As K. Ram rightly point this out….

One answer is to form smaller teams of coarse-grained people who are complemented by a limited number of product and technical specialists, whose insights can be invaluable when harnessed correctly. The coarse-grained team members who are more broadly experienced in program management, business process, communication and collaboration, technology, and the like, are then held accountable for the overall effectiveness of the team and the success of the initiative.

I like the following expression of what things ought to be….

Think of these teams as being analogous to an NBA basketball team. The most successful teams generally have one or two players who do many things well — shoot, defend, rebound, ball- handle, etc. — surrounded by role players who might specialize in just three-point shots, or defense or rebounding. The multi-skilled players can pull all of the role players together into a cohesive team and get the most out of them.

CIOs and other IT leaders should seek out these coarse-grained generalists wherever they may find them, and place them at the center of their most strategic and impactful initiatives if not having them lead the forefront of the project. The results are often exponentially better than otherwise, and such approaches tend to open the doors in organizations for much more agile and responsive development and team-building approaches. Done well, this approach delivers what the organization needs and desires, just as a well-constructed and managed NBA team delivers a championship team to its owners and fans. There is nothing better in IT than turning Big failures into Big successes.

Can Generalists Bring In Those New Frontier Equations? And Would The Specialists Able To Accept Implements That Go Beyond Their Wildest Imagination?

Having said what was said on how generalists should feature more prominently in any of the major IT transformational projects, I believe generalists if they are well exposed to the overall business operations over the span of their career they tend to bring in a much different or varieties of concepts in getting objectives met.

One fine example that I could think of….

Specialists tend to keep to the simple fact that any core insurance IT system should be a single highly integrated system but then generalists tend to think a highly complex core IT system is not an answer in meeting the high level of customers’ expectation today.

If the core system breakdown (malfunctioned) then all major processing may be severely affected. On the other hand if a programme upgrade is needed, some programming done within a particular module may affects the performance of the others and such malfunctioning may takes a long time to resolve or may turned chronic over a period of time.

It therefore makes operational sense if insurance companies could keep their core system as simple as possible – breaking up the core system into strategic sub-core standalone systems running on standalone processing servers also makes good business sense.

This means those breakaway sub-core systems can be tactically installed for the used at the front point-of-sales or real-time internet access – it makes sense as both distribution channels and customers are able to access and make immediate data-entry for quotation and purchases online.

Then…. having said that, I can even conclude….

“….generalists should not just be a major part of the IT transformation project at the implementation phase but should also spearhead both the project conceptualisation stage as well as the creation of the project framework….”

But then, do we then have such a capable GENERALIST? Yes, look no further as I am one of those rare ones!

About the Author: K. Ram Sundaram is a senior principal of X by 2, a consulting firm in Farmington Hills, Mich., specializing in enterprise and application architecture for the insurance industry. He can be reached at

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