The five minute CIO: Fergal Collins, Aon

21 Nov 2014

Fergal Collins, COO and acting CIO of the Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics

“We are cautiously moving into the area of cloud but are very conscious as a company with risk at its core of the implications of doing that,” explains Fergal Collins, COO of the Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics (ACIA).

Aon is a provider of risk management, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, human resource solutions and outsourcing services. Founded in 1919, the company has grown to employ 66,000 people worldwide.

According to Collins, Aon has invested US$350m globally in boosting its analytics technologies and capabilities. The ACIA in Dublin employs 120 people and last year announced 30 new jobs. To date, they have hired 39 new employees in 2014. The ACIA team supports clients and Aon colleagues worldwide through the provision of advanced insurance research, analytics and business intelligence.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology roll-out across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

Aon’s Centres for Innovation and Analytics, in Dublin and Singapore, are seen as the cornerstone of Aon’s analytics efforts. We have invested about US$350m in analytics globally to date and these centres provide analytical insights to our colleagues and clients by leveraging huge volumes of data across Aon’s business units globally.

We were set up here in 2009 and now have 120 colleagues and are growing year on year at a rate of about 20pc. Every day we are analysing millions of data points through our Global Risk Insight Platform (GRIP) and coming out of that, after a huge amount of data transformation, cleansing and analysis, is quality, insightful information. Our outputs include reports, dashboards, web portals and other analytics products that we can put into the hands of colleagues and clients to help them make more informed business decisions.

In summary, for Aon it has been a gradual journey towards more fact-based and actionable analytics.

What factors attracted Aon to establish its analytics centre in Dublin?

The key thing for Aon in setting up the centre in Dublin was access to a great pool of talent at our fingertips in 2009 – although there is no shying away from the fact that the market is now tightening up. We have 17 nationalities here, which say something about our ability to tap into the talent pools beyond Dublin and Ireland and Ireland’s ability to be seen as a place where people can have a good quality of life and successful career.

What challenges do you face?

In terms of the challenges that we face at the centre in Dublin, we have the same problems as other analytics organisations that handle huge volumes of data.

One is data management. When you come from a situation where you have silos of information, there are big challenges in transforming it and aggregating it into usable data.

The second would be turning that data into insights that are intuitive to use for the business. We rely on programmers and statisticians who are skilled at SQL, R and Python, but who are also good business analysts who can communicate directly to the business. They don’t always communicate in terms of traditional business requirements templates, but instead we are seeing a shift to iterative, collaborative dialogue between the business and the data scientists at the Centre.

The third challenge is data visualisation – having the ability to depict a story that is relevant to the business, and that resonates with the business. The stories are told in a way that can be graphically represented, informative and easily consumable. We have invested heavily here in the past year in new portal technologies and new visualization technologies such as Tableau that bring that to life. It also moves us away from the traditional fixed cycles of change where the end result may not be exactly what was asked – towards a solution that is more nimble.

It’s a brilliant place to work – we do very interesting things with data every day. We have 15 roles at the moment for data scientists, analytics, technologists, .NET developers. Anybody who is curious about data and how it can be used to empower results through facts that enable good decisions, we want to hear from those people. This is the right place and the right time for people in our Centre in terms of the prominence analytics now has in our organisation globally.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

We have a number of products that are providing insurance information on a daily basis to thousands of colleagues and clients and so we need the consistency and reliability that our two Dublin-based data centres, provided through HP, give us.

While we talked about the potential that cloud can offer, it is fair to say that from an infrastructure perspective we haven’t leapt into it as quickly as other companies have. One of the reasons is because we are part of a large global organisation with long established data centres – both Aon-owned and through third parties; it’s not straightforward to just simply move them out to the cloud.

Having said that it would be illogical for a centre likes ours that has innovation in its name to not be in that space. So we are looking to the cloud to support specific types of activities such as analytical research – as opposed to our more heavy-duty production systems. So in summary, we are cautiously moving into the area of cloud but we are very conscious as a company with risk at its core of the implications of doing that too.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

The IT team here in the ACIA is comprised of 30 people. But it is important to point out that whilst we are on the face of it relatively small team we have huge support in terms of 1,500 IT colleagues in Aon globally where there is deep infrastructure, application and data expertise that we can tap into and who we are aligned with but who at the same time allow us agility, flexibility and independence as an innovation centre. But we obviously remain aligned with the overall global IT strategy of Aon.

The crux of where this is all moving is big data. For global companies like Aon big data is the ability to obtain, then process and then analyse large swathes of global insurance data from dozens of Aon systems, scores of countries and from that generate actionable business insights.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

I would see big data strengthening its foothold in insurance. We would see a lot of potential for big data that allows improvements in insurance product development, market metrics, better pricing models, better customer segmentation, cross sales, new penetration and fraud detection.

In terms of the broader landscape, the ‘internet of things’ – and what it means for the insurance world – is coming to life in a few ways. For example, telematics is an interesting development for motor insurance and has the potential to fundamentally change motor insurance propositions, including improved measurement of risk and pricing, reduced claims and improved fraud detection and a new set of services resulting in greater client retention.

Another example is location-based insurance services over mobile phones for activities like skiing. Shortly after a customer arrives at a ski resort, the company sends a message offering various types of ski cover. At the heart of this is data where it can be presented in a centralised way and allows us to provide data-driven value that can help drive improved customer experience.

Another thing that comes to mind is cyber risk, which is becoming hugely focused in the minds of industry and individuals on day-to-day basis. Aon is very active in this space in terms of working with clients to determine what are the best ways of assessing, measuring and mitigating cyber risk which is a by-product of this mountain of data that is highly exposed in many respects when it comes to data security. We recently issued a Cyber Trends report highlighting the severe vulnerabilities in this area in Ireland and across EMEA.

We think Aon has an important role in helping clients to evolve and manage these new risks in the data-driven world that we now live in.

The Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics is a Silicon Republic Featured Employercomprised of top tech companies that are hiring now

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