How analytics became the jewel in Aon’s crown

2 Jul 2018

Yvonne Jacobi at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

At Inspirefest 2018, ACIA COO Yvonne Jacobi revealed how the data hub evolved to become central to the insurance giant’s core mission.

“In essence, it is a small but powerful group of 240 individuals within the expanse of the Aon organisation of 55,000 colleagues in it,” says Yvonne Jacobi proudly before the Inspirefest audience as she describes the work of her Dublin team.

“We provide insightful analytics to these colleagues but also to other stakeholders, clients and insurance firms.”

It is 2018 and data analytics is a hot breakthrough area of technology. For Aon, data is a strategic game-changer, so much so that it has been included at the very top of the company’s North Star mission statement.

‘We were established to introduce analytics into a relationship-dominated industry that has developed know-how and expertise over centuries’

But it has not always been the case, and Jacobi revealed that often the hardest sell was impressing upon her Aon colleagues the value of the data and how it could be best employed.

Aon is a provider of risk management, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, human resource solutions, and outsourcing services. Founded in 1919, the company has invested $350m globally in boosting its analytics technologies and capabilities.

The Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics (ACIA) is the cornerstone of that investment.

Sparking a revolution from within

The ACIA in Dublin was established in 2009 and comprises data experts analysing millions of data points captured by Aon’s global risk platform to provide impactful market insights and reports for brokers, partners and clients.

Jacobi has been with Aon for eight years, becoming chief operating officer at ACIA in 2016, extending to the ACIA Kraków team in February 2018. Her particular areas of focus are: risk management and data privacy, portfolio and delivery management, human resources, and ACIA financials.

In the course of her work, Jacobi fits a range of descriptions, including a mentor and a change agent, and believes that the work of ACIA is critical in informing Aon’s leadership about its strategic direction.

“Personally, it is not just work. I have found my time in ACIA has been about building a start-up within a global corporate, developing and motivating a team, and defining ourselves as data and analytics pioneers in a firm that hadn’t done that in the past.

“Most of all, what I love about the organisation and the industry where it stands right now is the sheer opportunity. It is an opportunity to provide the industry and firms with critical insights in their lives that they never had before, and support increasing levels of protection for their businesses.”

Crucially, the role of data and analytics is to provide that missing insight that can make all the difference.

“We are working to extend the conversation between the broker and the underwriter to ensure that they are not just talking about the past and the present, but ultimately the future and new and emerging risks that the client hasn’t considered before.

“In effect, we were established to introduce analytics into a relationship-dominated industry that has developed know-how and expertise over centuries. It took the presence of mind of global CEO Greg Case to define a vision for our organisation and for our industry, with data and analytics at its heart.”

Jacobi said that for Aon, investing in data and analytics to make it part of the company’s DNA was a brave and powerful step, but was “more evolution than revolution”.

The new ACIA organisation struggled with perception in the early days, often being seen as the problem child and not the problem-solver.

“We were seen as the disrupter of the norms and the way the organisation had traditionally operated.”

Added to this was the fact that Aon has acquired hundreds of other companies in recent years, all with multiple technology platforms, numerous methods of data collection and capture. The job of ACIA was to somehow collate that information and standardise it in a consistent way so that executives could use it.

“As we were collating this information, we started to identify patterns or shortfalls of data quality, challenges in terms of accuracy, and completeness issues.”

The bad news for the nascent ACIA team was a growing perception with Aon that the former was producing bad data. “This was a fallacy given that we weren’t actually producing data, but we were producing the analytics from the data we were given.”

The point of a pivot

What happened next was the corporate equivalent of a pivot whereby ACIA took a step back, reoriented itself and placed an emphasis on high-quality data solutions.

“This was not an easy task for a small group in a large organisation.”

The difficult part was also ensuring a “first-time-right” data entry policy across the Aon organisation.

“The fundamental thing is that we are driving collaboration with commitment. We are working with local country leaders to adopt and adapt data quality into their daily thinking, and for management to buy in and understand that what you put into the datasets, you get out in the analytics.”

This involved supporting leaders across Aon with clear measurable insights into what was happening in terms of data capture – what was good, what was bad and what changes were needed.

“The benefit from this work cannot be underestimated. The focus on data quality is key to delivering and enabling critical insights to support colleagues in their conversations with clients.

“At the core of achieving this is commitment towards a collaboration between the ACIA and the Aon network.”

A crucial part of the change process was learning that it wasn’t possible to please all of the people all of the time. “People were coming to us asking for analytics reports and we were saying, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ We couldn’t say no and didn’t want to.”

While this made sense at the start of the new organisation’s journey, it wasn’t realistic in the long term and Jacobi and her team realised they were forfeiting high-value opportunities.

What was needed was a rebalancing of priorities.

“The way to achieve this was prioritisation but defined by key value generation. Central to this change has been the requirement for commitment and accountability, both from ourselves in ACIA and across the Aon network.

“It has meant turning relationships on their head – where once ACIA was directed to do a job, we are now working with our key stakeholders, working actively through active ownership and with collaboration at its core.”

Change, Jacobi surmised, doesn’t happen overnight, and leading a start-up within an organisation as well as spearheading a strategic pivot and sacrificing sacred cows along the way is difficult but necessary.

“We had to soul-search and look inwardly to understand what was our unique selling proposition and how to drive the best value for the organisation and ultimately the clients.

“In the end, we followed a path which meant redefining our operational model.”

Through perseverance and commitment, Jacobi and her colleagues at ACIA have become an invaluable asset in the Aon armoury.

A leading CEO in the organisation summed it up for her. “He noted that we are in a time and a place with colleagues in an industry that is waking up to the reality that broking isn’t broking without data.

“He reaffirmed that while relationships were at the core of how we operate as an organisation, industry analytics are a fundamental ingredient,” Jacobi concluded.

“One can’t live with out the other. That’s our industry’s new reality.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years