Return of the Guru

When Planning is Impossible, What’s the Plan?

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, June 17, 2010

You may not realize it, but our industry, our nation and our world are at an economic crossroads not seen for the last 80 years or so. Not since the Great Depression have we been faced with the challenges of negotiating recovery from a major economic downturn, but surely that is what we’re facing now.

Of course, there are major differences between the situations then and now. The computer was only a pipe dream for a few geniuses in the 1930s, and today we have advanced technology that we hope will hasten our return to a healthy economy. I have no doubt that automation and innovation will indeed help put us on the road to recovery more quickly. At the same time, however, our ability to make changes quickly puts us in a bit of a bind. To wit, when do we invest in technology to ride the recovery wave?

Why is timing a problem? The simple answer is that if we invest too soon in what is cutting edge technology for today, it may do us little good if the actual recovery doesn’t happen for five years. Five years is a long time in the technology world; just think of the advances in insurance computer systems alone since 2005—not to mention the proliferation of the Internet and thousands of applications. So when the recovery hits its stride, we may find ourselves standing out in the cold with five-year-old technology.

On the other hand, if we wait too long to invest in advanced technology to maximize our competitive position, we may also be holding a losing hand. If the recovery takes hold before we can buy or build the technology needed to be competitive, we may still be embroiled in an automation project that could take years—while others who were better prepared sail on by us in the competitive race.

At this year’s IASA Educational Conference and Business Show, noted economist Frank Conde told an audience of CIOs that it is difficult, if not impossible, to plan for the future when we really don’t know how the course of the current recession and recovery will run. Others with him on the analysts’ panel pointed to a need for enterprises to be “agile”—ready to shift gears at a moment’s notice. That sounds practical, but can we really be prepared for every possible scenario? Obviously not.

So we are faced with the horseplayer’s dilemma. Betting on a horse race means doing your homework, coming up with an educated guess about how the race will be run, and watching the odds board to get the best price before we lay down our bets. The horseplayer has several advantages over the average CIO, however. The bettor can look at past performances and trends for this particular race, but we really don’t have the same type of history for economic recovery—unless you consider the 1930s as relevant to today.

Most important, however, the horseplayer knows exactly when the race will begin and can wait a good long time, considering the odds and payoffs, before laying down his bet. When it comes to the starting bell for economic recovery, however, the picture is not nearly as clear. We just don’t know when it will begin in earnest, so we really can’t be sure of when to make our technology investments.

In short—much as we like to think we know—the challenge for the CIO in the recovering economy is much more of a gamble than we would want it to be. The winners will be those whose timing is the best, but that will be a matter of good fortune more than anything. And as a friend once said to me, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

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