‘The best IT department is one that doesn’t exist’

By Sooraj Shah
16 Oct 2012 View Comments
jem-eskenazi

The sea of change affecting the insurance industry is placing new demands on IT, and the man tasked with ensuring that Groupama Insurances keeps afloat is CIO Jem Eskenazi.

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Eskenazi joined Groupama five and a half years ago, bringing more than 15 years’ experience as a CIO in several different firms, and he is responsible for strategic and operational IT in the company.

Eskenazi told Computing about the changes affecting both the IT team at Groupama and the insurance industry as a whole.

“The industry is going through pretty drastic changes, especially in terms of the elec-tronic dealing of the business. It is not the most advanced industry using e-commerce but the rate of change is very high – it’s a very dynamic situation at the moment,” Eskenazi said.

Groupama’s clients are brokers. As an indirect seller it does not speak to consumers except in regards to claims. This is why for years Groupama relied on a legacy CRM system.

The firm has now shifted to using online products such as Optima Business Plus. Eskenazi said that moving to electronic platforms was a complex process in itself, a shift that many insurance companies have had to manage over the past five years.

He explained that one of the key complexities in the industry was integration with both brokers and the software houses that create broker platforms. But he believes that by either installing these platforms internally or by using software-as-a-service (SaaS) modules, Groupama is well ahead of its competition.

While he acknowledged that insurance firms are extremely information-centric businesses and that IT is very much at the core of everything that Groupama does, he is wary of overstepping the mark.

“IT is not the business, but it is an extremely important factor within the business. Sometimes I hear CIOs saying that the IT team delivered this and that, and brought innovation to the company, but I believe it is something that is done with the business. For example, we have a claims organisation and I don’t tell the claims manager that I will improve his business. It is me talking to the claims team to discover how best to do this,” Eskenazi said.

Standards

As an insurer, Groupama is regulated by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The IT team follows a standards-based approach to remain compliant and aligned to the business – ITIL for its IT operations, Prince II for its project management methodology – and it is aiming towards ISO27001 certification for information security.

“Many people who don’t follow these standards think that they are too heavy or not required, but what we found is that if we take a rational, reasonable approach to these standards and we follow them, then at the end they make us a lot more efficient and effective,” Eskenazi said

Solvency II is an updated set of EU regulations, with strict requirements pertaining to data quality and management. Un-like at many firms, ensuring compliance has not been a prob-lem for Groupama’s IT team.

“Solvency II requires clarity on all of the data that a firm has. For a company that has 10 different platforms doing the same type of work where data may be replicated in different ways from platform to platform, there would be huge complexity,” Eskenazi said.

“Our architecture is very clean and simple – we do not have two platforms carrying out the same function. With our data flow, data warehouse population and business intelligence it is very clear where the data is, where the source is and what is represented.”

Moving to the cloud

Groupama is moving most of its non-critical systems to the cloud, including payroll, HR, email and calendar, collaboration tools and project management tools.

“We are moving to SaaS and infrastructure as a service [IaaS] and I believe that eventually everything will be in some sort of cloud service. When we need a new system or want to refresh a system we investigate whether it makes sense to put it onto some form of cloud service,” Eskenazi said.

For example, Groupama is moving its email, calendar and documents to Google Apps.

“It will allow us to collaborate on online documents, and have teleconferences or video conferences. We also looked at Micro-soft 365 but decided Google Apps was better. We did not want to install something internally because the cloud is cheaper, but more importantly because Google is visionary and it can improve services and bring functionality and new things that we could not even think of. It is a lot faster than if you install something internally,” he explained.

Virtualisation and BYOD

The insurer has nearly completed datacentre, server and storage virtualisation and will soon be able to allow the majority of users to use virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). Groupama preferred the VDI/VPN option to implementing a company-wide bring your own device (BYOD) scheme.

“The vast majority of our users are task based; they are either underwriting people or claims people. They sit in an office and complete a number of functions with the tools that we provide them. Offering them the capability of using an iPad instead of a PC is not required,” Eskenazi explained.

“However, we want to let them access their email, calendar and possibly business systems. We are trying to find the right tools but it is not all there yet. We have looked at [mobile solutions provider] Good Technology and we found that it is not good enough at incorporating Google Apps, so it is probably a couple of months before we crack it completely,” he added.

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