I found myself interviewing for my first job in 1983 with J&H Los Angeles. I had no idea what an insurance broker did, but I was pretty sure it included an expense account. During the grueling interview, I told my prospective employer I had experience with personal
computers and could handle a DOS-based spreadsheet and word processing programs, such as Super Calc and Word Perfect. It was (technically) not a lie, as I had written my résumé on Word Star with the help of my older brother.
To my shock and my father’s delight, J&H offered me the position. On the first day of work, I was asked to complete a half-hour assignment using the PC to tabulate marketing results for a 10-life group LTD marketing. Two hours later, I erased the C: drive of one of our personal computers. Somehow, I kept my job.
The p-c division of the office was connected by a series of IBM AS400 terminals running a policy administration system that was today’s technological equivalent of kite string connecting Dixie cups. On the other hand, the employee benefits department did not employ a single individual over 25 and possessed three of the office’s new IBM XT personal computers.
There was a clear technology divide in the office. The 35-plus group considered computers a sign of the apocalypse. They loved their phone message slips and typing pools.
Across the aisle, the EB überkinder were creating slick-looking proposals and cranking out customized spreadsheets in a quarter of the time it took to write a word processing requisition and stamp it URGENT. Those who “would not and could not” began to stand out like plaid pants at a black tie affair.
With the advent of the Internet, intermediaries across the globe were administered last rites as the geeks and pundits prophesied the end of relationship-based businesses. We scrambled and hired new CIOs and pimply-faced consultants to tell us how to use the Internet and save our jobs. Yet we woke up one morning and found we were still here. We had an epiphany: Technology was never intended to supplant us but instead would facilitate our change. A digital company could drive faster processes and reduce costs and give us real-time information.
As we began to use technology to drive change, we started characterizing people as those who can’t and won’t and those who were at least willing to take a two-hour class on Lotus Notes. The analog manager resisted. He did not need metrics. He could tell who had capacity just by walking around and seeing who was not crying at their desk. The Jurassic Age of insurance brokerage was all about relationships, napkins and golf games—not computers.
With the dawning of brokerage’s Cretaceous Period, life accelerated. Speed, size and agility became critical prerequisites to success. Technology aided new entrants and smaller players that would have perished in a primordial landscape. These new competitors were not burdened by analog cultures or legacy systems and could leapfrog the less nimble. We watched high-profile train wrecks as insurance executives lost their jobs and shareholder value by betting on the wrong CIO or the wrong technology. Or both.
Technology is again accelerating our rate of evolutionary change. Stress fractures are still visible as we battle our aversion to change. A service-based business in the new millennium capable of achieving sustained organic growth with first-quartile margins must understand that every business process can be enabled by technology.
We have learned the hard way that technology is a means, not a solution in itself. When the spark of technology fails, it usually suffocates from the lack of oxygen arising out of management’s passive-aggressive opposition and poor project management. In the brave new world of brokerage, high-performance firms will need to understand how technology facilitates survival in a human, capital-based service.
The T-Rex broker is slowly becoming extinct. He does not see himself as an anachronism with his huge snapping jaws, three handicap, tiny arms that can still pick up checks, and big head that thinks social media is a group of friendly reporters. The largest dinosaur to ever get a broker of record letter is finding it hard to change as the world shifts around him. Technology won’t kill him, but his failure to grab technology’s lifeline may.
Former IBM chief Jack Welch once said, “When the rate of change outside your organization exceeds the rate of change within, the end is near.” In the end, our success will be determined by our capacity to adapt to a newer digital model.
Retracted arms, large head and bad attitude are no way to go through life and will most likely lead to three strikes in an age where the only sure things are competition, change…and Twitter.