Editors' Cuts

The Writing is on the Walls … Literally

Carrie Burns
Insurance Experts' Forum, April 20, 2011

As editor of INN, I’ve visited a more than a few insurance companies—many were very welcoming and happy to show me around, while some others not so much. My visit to USAA, however, was unlike any other.

I visited the company's San Antonio headquarters to shoot a video for INN TV (look for it in the next week or so), and was graciously shown the facilities for as long as time allowed. Walking the long halls of one of the largest buildings (per square foot) in the United States, I was surrounded with reminders of USAA's identity as well as its mission. From a replica of the first auto insured by USAA in 1922, to the artistic renderings of soldiers in battle, it was clear that employees were focused on one thing—USAA’s members. My observation was affirmed when I spoke with employees there.

“Our environment reminds us of why we do what we do,” was a common comment to me. The employees view the fact that since they’re not publicly traded, they answer to their members. “It’s members first, USAA employees second and USAA (the business) third. Everything we do, every innovation—whether that’s technology or not—is focused on the member,” one employee said to me.

Not many in the industry will dispute USAA’s reputation for technology innovation. As I walked through the Innovation Lab, an area where employees can conceptualize, design and test ideas before moving them to full-scale development, I actually saw what I see on TV commercials—employees interacting and engaging with each other, technologies to spur thought, writing and diagrams on the walls indicating ideas. Yes, that's right—writing on the actual walls. When the Innovation Lab was remodeled three years ago, the walls were designed with either writable paint or whiteboard-type surfaces to enable employees to scrawl out an idea right when it struck.

While at lunch, one of the USAA employees I spoke with asked me about what I see other insurance companies doing to champion and see innovation through. After thinking about the projects and nomination forms submitted for our awards program, it occurred to me: Innovation—too often—is only conceptualized from the top. Executives have an innovative idea and say, “do it.” At USAA, the environment is different. Employees are encouraged to offer ideas.

The project for which USAA won our INNovator award is its Innovation Communities for the Enterprise (ICE). The platform—built on a customized version of the Salesforce.com ideas community, and organized into several sub-communities to support USAA’s business model—gives all employees an avenue to share innovative ideas. One of the ICE ideas from its employees that recently became reality was creating a proprietary vehicle ranking system to help USAA members find the right vehicle. The scoring model looks at cost (insurance/fuel, purchase price), safety and reliability. Vehicles that shake out through this three-part rating system are designated as USAA Preferred (there are 80 such vehicles this year).

So, many of the innovations coming out of USAA began as an idea from a member services rep or a marketing manager or an actuary. One employee I talked to said she doesn’t feel USAA’s true innovation exists solely from technology; it’s the employees too. “USAA employees have always had innovative ideas and, technology—specifically, the ICE platform—gives us the tool to share and develop them.”

Carrie Burns is editor of Insurance Networking News.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Carrie by using the “Add Your Comments” box below. She can also be reached at carrie.burns@sourcemedia.com.

This blog was exclusively written for Insurance Networking News. It may not be reposted or reused without permission from Insurance Networking News.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

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