The five-minute CIO: Ciaran Brosnan

31 May 2013

Ciaran Brosnan, IT manager of Campion Insurance

Campion Insurance’s IT manager Ciaran Brosnan on why big data has a role for SMEs, and how moving to a more stable virtualised platform reassures the business that it can meet its growth goals.

Campion Insurance employs around 150 people and you have staff across 11 offices around Ireland, so what implications does that have for your IT systems?

We’re on a reasonably good growth trajectory at the moment.

The diversified office structure obviously has big implications for us. It essentially means we had to invest in the whole Citrix infrastructure as opposed to having different infrastructures in each office – and that has cost and complexity implications. If we were all in the one office, it would be far easier to set up and maintain.

The driver around Citrix is, the main insurance application that’s used by brokers is called Relay. It’s a Windows desktop product with a SQL database so you need a Windows-type platform to run it. We benefit from the other advantages of Citrix, like control of the desktop and centralised management

Relay drives a lot of our operations. The financial application is Microsoft Dynamics NAV. We’re currently changing over life systems, and we’re looking at two players in that space. We use Cisco IP telephony and we used NICE call recording system

Tell me about your own role: is it down-in-the-trenches IT work, or is it more business-focused?

I’m very much not in the trenches; I manage the outsourced partners and some in-house staff but the role is much more business focused.

You still have to explore certain areas yourself, for example, around the data models we use. If you want to integrate reporting from our phone system and Relay, you need to figure out how they all work together. So there’s plenty of data modelling and working with databases and things like that.

Of course, cost is a key issue. We have lots of challenges in our industry. It’s very competitive and you need to retain customers and you’ve got to use your systems to help you meet all those business goals.

Growing the business is about mining our quote database effectively and trying to attract your customers back. We have automation that we’re developing around the renewals process, sending clients updates every year without having to rebroker every year. We’re trying to completely automate that from A to Z so that the clients don’t have to shop around.

What are your targets from this project?

There’s a strategic element to it in conjunction with another thing we’re looking at: we’re looking at a development with our own product, called Propensity to Renew. It looks at industry metrics, geographic and demographic information and our own client data, and helps identify those that are at risk of not renewing. The idea is, we would use the automated rebroker on clients that are not at risk, and the clients that are at risk, we would spend more agent time on them, and on offering discounts.

Do you see that as a big data initiative?

It was about internal business concerns. You’re going to have to be lean to stay ahead in this market. You’re competing against the direct players and the insurance companies and all of them have invested in these big data models, so we have to level the playing field as such.

There are small sections [of big data] that are going to apply to SMEs like ourselves. We don’t have the resources or tools to look at it in the macro fashion that people are talking about in the media.

But your assessment is that big data can work for your company?

Yes, but it’s not the big panacea that everyone thinks it is.

Are you planning any major changes to your critical systems in the coming year?

We invested significantly in changing our infrastructure over the last 18 months. We went from where our office in Dublin was essentially a mini data centre for the whole organisation to where everything is now a virtualised hosted solution in a third-party data centre. That solved a lot of operational problems.

Now it’s about leveraging that investment and getting the best out of the information. The projects I mentioned are part of it, and that’s about consolidating the information to give timely operations data to the people on the ground. It’s just one of many little projects that need to go on.

IT was a problem 18 months ago in terms of stability. Now it isn’t, and we want to get better value from IT in terms of information.

There’s a big push to ‘do more with less’ from an IT budget standpoint: what’s your take on this – can it be done, and if so, how?

Wherever you go there’s always going to be some low-hanging fruit. The move to a virtualised environment in a private cloud obviously did reduce some of the ongoing costs, in the medium term. There was some capital investment needed to get that.

We’ve done a lot of other projects: we fully outsourced all the printing and made it uniform right across the organisation, and that took 20pc-plus out of our cost of running and managing printers and 20pc of the support time.

Do you have a large in-house IT team or do you rely on external providers?

On our growth agenda we would hope to be double our current size in five years. I would plan to do that with the resources I have, and extend that through outsourcing agreements.

Do you look for personal relationships, like the one with your provider Trilogy, when finding the right fit for external partners?

Yes, definitely. Indigenous [providers] would be the preference. We’re very much a local business ourselves so it has to ring true on the other side of it, as well.

What are your plans for the future?

I think we have the right structure in place. Now it’s all about getting the right priorities, and matching the IT priorities to the business priorities. We have the commitment to invest where required. I think we are where we need to be as a structure but we haven’t realised all the benefits we possibly can yet.

Describe your own approach to technology: just a cost to be managed, or can a firm like yours use it to drive major change in how you do things?

IT is a big cost and has to be managed like all other costs so that is going to be an element to the job, and you always have to get value for money, but you’re right in terms of it’s about the correct strategic adoptions that can make a real difference to the company, and that’s where I see myself adding value.

In coming to the role, is your own background a technical or business one?

I kind of went the opposite route round: I did business degrees and an MBS in my education, and I had an interest in technology. I got my experience in the technical side from my work after that.

Do you think a business-first approach is necessary for taking a strategic approach to the role?

I think if you work for a business, you have to have a business focus in all your tasks. Having a silo mentality of ‘we’re in IT’ is not positive for any organisation.

Can you give an example of a recent technology project that delivered measurable value to the business that they saw?

The infrastructure refresh that we mentioned; when we moved everything to a virtualised solution in the cloud. Prior to that there were many stability problems and in one fell swoop we solved most of them. The chief executive would say it’s chalk and cheese compared to what it was 18 months ago.

Once the organisation has confidence in the IT, it can move forward. There’s nothing worse than major outages for an organisation that’s client-focused and sales-focused, because all of a sudden IT is the problem for not meeting sales targets.

Would you ever consider the public cloud?

Moreso software-as-a-service. When we did this [refresh] exercise we looked at what we had to bring and the obvious thing was the email. It went straight to Office365. The once-off migration costs mean that we’d never have to do it again.

We’re looking at a new life system and the only players in the market are SaaS players … The easier you can make your life, the better. [It’s also] the whole flexibility it offers: you’re reactive to your market, you don’t have the DR [disaster recovery] concerns – assuming you do your vetting correctly – and DR is a big thing for us

It’s a choice we’re more than happy to make but with the Relay application which is our primary application, there’s no sign that that’s a place they’re going to go, so that guided our private cloud investment.

As for doing more with less, one of the exercises we did was, we looked at our comms costs and we had various providers for landline, mobile and so on. We consolidated them, and we got a discount. When you can look at your costs in a holistic view, you really can get value for money.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic