Talent is key

July 15, 2008

I’ve spent the last several days in Taipei, where I’m attending the 44th Annual Seminar of the International Insurance Society. Not surprisingly, given the conference venue and current trends in local business, much of the discussion has centered on the insurance industry’s Asia efforts.

Beyond even talk of the importance of providing appropriate products for different local markets and the various distribution challenges posed by many emerging markets, perhaps the most frequently cited issue facing the industry as companies look to expand around the globe is the talent shortage confronting them in emerging markets.

Many of the panelists addressing the talent issue spoke of not only the difficulty of finding needed talent locally, but of the importance of retaining it once companies had recruited and trained individuals.

Martyn Parker, Hong Kong-based group executive board member and chief executive officer of the Asia division of Swiss Reinsurance Co., conceded that there will always be employee turnover. That said, “The turnover that really does trouble me is the turnover to competitors, which is always disappointing after you’ve invested in people,” he said.

For Swiss Re, retaining talent in rapidly developing Asian markets is more challenging than recruitment, Mr. Parker said. Meanwhile, Michael J. Cassella, senior vp and managing director Asia-Pacific for the Chubb Group of Cos. in Singapore, took the opposite view, to an extent.

“I’d say our greatest challenge is finding the talent,” he said. Consequently, Chubb puts considerable effort into retaining employees in Asia so it won’t have to devote additional resources to finding and developing replacements.

Whether recruiting or retention is the greatest challenge facing insurance industry companies moving into emerging markets, clearly solving the talent issue is key to the success of their efforts.

“I think there’s a strong correlation between companies making the most progress and their talent management piece,” said Swiss Re’s Mr. Parker.

I’ll be posting more to the blog about the IIS in the days to come, and will be writing about the conference more extensively in the August issue of Industry Focus.


Immigrants vs. natives

May 23, 2008

Of the many meetings I had at this year’s ACORD conference last week in Las Vegas, one theme that came through in many of them was the impact a new generation of employees and consumers will have on the insurance industry from a technology perspective.

Mark W. Lewis, general manager, global insurance industry at IBM, described the issue as one of digital immigrants vs. digital natives. As a Baby Boomer who’s come to embrace information technology in my professional and personal lives, I fit into the immigrant category. Folks like my daughter and others just getting started on their adult lives and careers–who’ve grown up with personal computers and can text message like the wind–are the digital natives.

“In a few more years you’re going to have far more people who don’t even think about technology,” Mr. Lewis said. For the digital natives, IT is just a fact of life, not something that catches their attention.

“The most important part about that is you truly think differently,” he said. “The fact is the business world is being changed and it will continue to be changed by people like that.”

That everyday familiarity with technology will manifest itself in many of the decisions made by the next generation of business executives, Mr. Lewis said.

“One of the advantages that the digital natives will have is the more the business executive knows about technology, the better decisions he’ll make about what is possible,” he said.

The subject was at the heart of a meeting with Bill Hartnett, U.S. insurance industry solutions director at Microsoft Corp., as well. He and others from Microsoft were noting the impact the next generation’s expectations and experiences will have on the insurance industry, and promoting solutions to help address them.

A survey the company conducted earlier this year of adult “Millennials”–those 18 to 27 years old–show the issue cuts both in terms of the industry’s meeting its talent needs and in serving the next generation of insurance buyers.

The survey showed 91% of those questioned saying access to newer, innovative technologies would make them more likely to consider potential job opportunities.

Survey respondents also indicated they see the industry’s adoption of various technology-based customer service tools is an important issue, with 89% saying they think it’s important insurance companies provide Web-based customer support, 86% saying it’s important that insurance companies offer customers personal Web portals on which they can view their accounts and 76% saying it’s important they offer live online chats with agents.

They also are believers in blogs, according to the Microsoft survey, with 69% saying it’s important to them that insurance companies offer company blogs on which customers can post their questions or concerns. 



Sick call

April 10, 2008

We care so much about our co-workers, we even want to share our illnesses with them. At least that seems to be one way of reading the results of a recent poll conducted by Shelton, Conn.-based work/life benefits company LifeCare Inc.

The online poll of employees at LifeCare’s 1,500 client organizations asked “When you go to work sick, what is the main reason?” It found 29% of those responding saying they went to work sick because they didn’t want to let down colleagues who depend on them.

Another 26% said they went to work sick because the politics or culture of their office made it too risky to take time off, while 15% said they were too busy to stay home. Many respondents indicated they’re trying to save their time off, 12% saying they were saving the days for childcare/eldercare emergencies and 8% saying they were saving the days for vacation time. That latter group makes the most sense to me–who wants to waste time off being sick?

Of those polled, 7% said they don’t work when they’re sick. Ah, the sensible 7%, willing to take a chance on letting down co-workers for a day or two rather than exposing them to their illness.

This year’s top reason for going to work sick was a change from the results when LifeCare asked the same question in 2006 and 2007, when “too risky to take time off” was the top response. Interestingly, LifeCare notes that the percentage saying they don’t work when they’re sick has stayed fairly consistent each year in that 6% to 7% range.


A little extra wurst

June 19, 2007

Folks traveling to Berlin in a couple of weeks for the International Insurance Society’s annual gathering have a couple of things to be happy about.

The first, of course, is the fact that the annual seminars are in Berlin, a city I thoroughly enjoyed on my last opportunity to visit there about eight years ago. The second is that Berlin ranks towards the bottom of a new ranking of the world’s 50 most expensive cities.

Moscow tops the list, compiled by Mercer Human Resource Consulting. Second on the ranking from Mercer’s Cost of Living Survey is London, followed by Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Rounding out the top 10 on Mercer’s ranking are Copenhagen, Geneva, Osaka, Zurich and Oslo.

And Berlin? It comes in 45th in Mercer’s survey, tied with Abu Dhabi and Dusseldorf.

Due to the dollar’s weakness, only two U.S. cities made the top 50, New York at 15 and Los Angeles at 42.

Mercer’s annual survey covers 143 cities, comparing them on the local cost of more than 200 items including housing, transportation, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment.

Mercer noted that 30 of the 50 most expensive cities were in Europe, adding that strong currencies contributed to the higher relative cost of living in most European cities.

Keep smiling

April 19, 2007

Anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of working with a moody colleague of for a boss prone to wild swings of emotion can likely attest to the accuracy of a new paper by a pair of academics focusing on the impact of “affect”–emotion–on organizational behaviors.

The paper, Why Does Affect Matter in Organizations, was written by Sigal G. Barsade, associate professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Donald E. Gibson, associate professor of management at the Dolan School of Business at Fairfield University.

In it, the authors suggest that “Affect permeates organizations,” and contend that over the past 30 years an “affective revolution” has taken place in which academics and managers have come to appreciate that an organizational view that considers the impact of affect offers a perspective previously missing in analysis of the workplace.

The two professors examine three different types of feelings: discrete, short-lived emotions; moods–longer lasting feelings not necessarily connected to a particular cause; and dispositional traits, the personality characteristics defining an individual’s overall approach to life.

All three can be contagious, according to the paper, and “emotional contagion”–the sharing or transferring of emotions from one individual to others–often occurs without conscious knowledge. From a business perspective, such “contagion” can have a significant impact.

For example, the authors cite the case of the positive mood of bank tellers generating a positive emotional contagion among customers, leading to positive customer evaluations of service quality. In a group setting, positive emotional contagion from the leader has been found to have a subsequent positive impact on group coordination and effort.

While the paper cites some cases of conflict in research surrounding the impact of affect, it concludes that organizational researchers are increasingly recognizing the impact emotions have on any situation in which humans interact with one another and their environment, including the workplace. And, it says, “The evidence is overwhelming that experiencing and expressing positive emotions and moods tends to enhance performance at individual, group and organizational levels.”

Ultimately, affect matters to organizations, the two professors conclude, “because employees are not isolated `emotional islands.'” Thus, “an understanding of how these affective experiences and expressions operate and influence organizational outcomes is an essential piece in understanding how work is done and how to do it better.”

Seeking a skilled workforce

March 15, 2007

I attended an interesting program this morning, a Finance & Insurance Workforce Summit presented by the Workforce Boards of Metropolitan Chicago.

Essentially, the program was an examination of some of the key issues and challenges facing insurance and financial services companies as they look to attract, develop and retain the talent needed to be competitive in the years ahead. I’ll be writing about the session more fully in April’s Industry Focus, and who knows, I may follow up a bit further here on the blog in the next few days.

Among the many serious workforce issues facing employers in this industry segment, I guess the journalist in me was struck by one in particular–the fact that many new hires are unable to write.

“What you have is managers writing e-mails because their employees can’t write,” said one panelist, Leana Flowers, executive vp and director of retail and human resource strategies at Chicago’s ShoreBank. And the issue is one that those managers often find difficult to address, Ms. Flowers said. “It’s sensitive and it’s cultural,” she said.

In an effort to address the problem, ShoreBank has partnered with the City Colleges of Chicago to provide remedial grammar training to employees requiring it.

And, while the computer competence and technical comfort level of Gen Yers entering the workplace is seen as a plus, another panelist, Andy Liakopoulos, senior manager in the Human Capital Group at Deloitte Consulting, noted that many of those under 25s have writing issues as a result of growing up used to the informality of e-mail correspondence and text messaging.