The five minute CIO: Ken Ryan

11 Apr 2014

Ken Ryan, CIO at online insurance provider

A relative newcomer to Ireland’s insurance market, even as a start-up kept a strategic view of investing in IT delivery and has a ‘customer first’ approach to technology spending. Ken Ryan, the company’s CIO, tells us more.

Can you describe your role at what does a typical day look like to you?

We’re a company that works every day with thousands of customers: every interaction we have with them is totally technology-dependent, from the online store through to the call centre and all of the support systems that manage the policies we sell.

As we’re consistently evolving what we do for our customers, there are always significant change projects under way. My role is to ensure that we deliver the best service every day and continue to evolve and deliver our change projects in short cycle times.

What are the critical applications that the business uses?

Our online presence is paramount. Our call-centre staff use the same systems that our customers use so there’s a lot of focus on ease of use and simplicity of our quote and buy web applications. In our Dublin call centre, policy fulfilment and service are key applications for us. is a relatively young company in insurance: do you think you’re at an advantage because of not having expensive legacy systems to maintain?

We certainly run a very modern application stack so that is an advantage – but the term legacy could nearly be applied to anything over three years old. For example, online applications built three years ago without the ability to support mobile are now a legacy and need a refresh.

Do you try and keep technology expertise in-house as much as possible, or do you outsource strategically?

Creating technology solutions every day requires creative and skilled IT teams. Part of our DNA is about having great talent that’s part of the company and that’s one of the things that makes us successful.

We handle most of our work internally with a strong focus on retaining the “brain side of IT” – outsourcing only the services that, while they’re important, are not differentiators to how we serve our customers.

You’ve spoken before about how digital is shaping your IT strategy: in what ways?

Customers want to deal with us when they want and how they want. Over the last 24 months, the number of mobile-based visitors who want to do a full transaction online has risen exponentially. We’ve responded with a “mobile first” strategy and our sites work equally well on mobile, tablet and desktop.

Customers want to renew online; now they can with three clicks. Customers want to easily engage with us online via mobile devices; now they can via responsive site design.

Equally, we have seen a dramatic rise in online web chat – so much so that we extended our agent support hours on the chat services. We recently launched a customer service line on Twitter and while it’s early days, it’s another channel for our customers to choose how they do business with us.

How do you assign your IT budget to cope with that?

Our IT budget is prioritised “customer first” so that we deliver the products and services the customers want. Digital is not a “project”: it is part of our core design and what we do.

Will you have more, less or about the same to spend as last year, and how will that impact on your spending priorities?

We expect to spend about the same. We grew from a start-up environment with limited funds but with a strategic view of investing in IT delivery. That hasn’t changed, even though we’ve grown substantially.

We have a clear governance process over expenditure and each spend has to deliver a return, as you would expect. The key for us is to work to short cycle times with early delivery of value. That practice underpins our investments and makes business cases much more robust.

Have you any major upgrades or changes planned for this year, and what are they?

We are continuing to develop our online products and in particular we see opportunity to enhance our customer service online with new tools and services.

You came from having worked at a technology company: in what way is the insurance sector different in its approach to IT?

The technology companies both create and advocate technology use, as it is their core business. Change is rapid and expected. The insurance sector has a much deeper legacy, and in many ways technology was a back office support function. The change to bring technology up front and centre for customer delivery takes time, and many of the technologies that would work well in the back office are no longer fit for purpose in an online world.

How would you describe the appetite for IT investment in the business: is IT perceived as a cost centre to be delivered cheaply and effectively, or is it seen as a real business enabler?

IT is core to everything we do: we wouldn’t have the business today without IT enabling all the teams and customers we interact with every day. We are absolutely cost-focused and at the same time we invest heavily in IT – the net result is high-value delivery and better prices for our customers.

Given the financial sector is so highly regulated, does that impose certain choices on how you use IT?

It’s a core tenet that our compliance manager is part of our business leadership team and brings the regulatory lens and oversight to everything we do. This may mean that we have additional work when delivering solutions compared to the commercial sector or occasionally it limits choice – for example, with cloud solutions – but that’s the same for all of the competitors in our market.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic