CIO interview: Richard Williams, CIO, Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, London Market

CIOs need to have the courage to seek out innovation, says Richard Williams, CIO at insurer Mitsui Sumitomo

CIOs need to have the courage to seek innovation, says Richard Williams, CIO at Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance.

Williams tells Computer Weekly he takes a three-speed approach to innovation at Mitsui, incorporating traditional suppliers as well as experimenting with technology from smaller startup companies.

He believes technologies from smaller vendors can complement existing legacy IT systems.

Three-speed approach to innovation

His three-speed approach to innovation includes stable systems from established suppliers running the core of the business, smaller vendors supplying tools that give a competitive advantage and, lastly, an innovation layer that allows him to experiment with new ideas.

While he says Mitsui is still a “Microsoft shop”, using the supplier as its corporate standard, he is open to looking elsewhere for other technologies.

He says the insurance sector suffers from its use of legacy IT because it cannot migrate or upgrade due to cost, and it must keep it because the firm's core data sits on legacy systems. Williams therefore looks to smaller companies to provide new future-proof technologies that can be used alongside legacy IT.

Williams, who worked at another specialist insurer, Beazly, before joining Mitsui three years ago, stresses that it is important for CIOs to develop a multi-pronged approach to innovation by incorporating traditional suppliers and looking at new technologies.

“The stuff that runs the office needs to be stodgy, pretty dull and reliable.” But he is also open to any vendor who has a good idea and interesting technology for other aspects of the enterprise.

“Companies that have grown up around the development of apps have a different mindset,” he says. “It’s about being able to do what you want to do and nothing more in a quick and easy mobile way. In our experience smaller vendors innovate and develop faster, and the apps tend to be of a higher quality.”

Proof of concepts

One of the smaller vendors Williams chose to work with was Huddle. In 2011 when the company tested Huddle’s collaboration and document-sharing tool on a trial basis.

This is not commonplace with established suppliers, but Williams can happily explore smaller vendors for innovative proof of concepts.

It's about being curious and open to the opportunities the digitised economy provides

“Smaller vendors tend to innovate and develop faster than big suppliers, and they have a much more service-orientated focus.”

He uses Huddle as an example of smaller vendors concentrating on customer experience. The company released an alert messaging update to its app a few years back, which Williams describes as “more silicon roundabout than city of London". He says it was too chatty for Mitsui and didn’t fit in with the company’s culture and ethos. But Huddle made changes within 48 hours. “It got changed to a blander and duller message, but one more appropriate. That is the sort of approach that is important to us.”

Finding innovation

Williams’ executive board isn’t particularly tech savvy, but he says they understand that to not be engaged with new technologies is a bad idea. While the company doesn’t want to bet the bank on new technology, it also wants to be flexible, which is where the smaller vendor relationships becomes incremental to developing the business.

He says he looks for innovation by asking peers and being “professionally curious". At the moment, the company is discussing how to improve its data analysis. Williams has noticed several online data analysis competitions to find data scientists and he says this is one way he could consider finding innovative talent in the future.

“It’s about being curious and open to the opportunities the digitised economy provides,” he says. “You have to be constantly aware about getting out there, while keeping your ear to the ground.”

The trouble with startups

But while smaller companies are attractive as they are agile, innovative and imaginative with technology, they are also less financially stable, and as they rapidly grow they can also lack focus.

This wasn’t a problem he faced with Huddle, but he says he did make the vendor jump through some hoops to prove their worth. “These smaller companies need to prove their quality, as well as stability as a business and they have the resources – like all the things we’d look for from a larger relationship.”

But risks aside, Williams is committed to bringing innovation into the enterprise. “One of my secrets is just to have a go.” His positive approach means he can spend £10,000 on new technology solutions from different startup trials, rather than having to justify £100,000 on a single piece of technology.

“It’s about CIOs having the courage to say innovation needs be done – it doesn’t need to be big.”

Huddle case study

Huddle provides Mitsui with its standard cloud-collaboration application, which has contributed significantly to reducing the printing and paper costs by almost 50%.

Prior to the implementation of Huddle’s technology, Mitsui would print and bind papers and courier them around the country. “These were reasonably sensitive papers, which were getting pinged around the country on the back of a motorbike,” says Williams.

As well as couriering paper, there was a risk of employees sending documents via personal email accounts to work on at home, which was another challenge to security.

This movement of material concerned Williams when he joined the company three years ago, so he implemented the Huddle collaboration tool to ensure a secure way of distributing documents, while saving costs on paper.

Huddle's high quality means it can be pushed to people with little IT knowledge

“Cost is a factor, but for us it’s also about security and flexibility,” he says.

Mitsui were early adopters of bring-your-own-devices (BYOD), implementing a programme two and a half years ago. The then chose Huddle for collaboration and Good for Enterprise for email and calendar. The adoption of this technology proved a popular and effective way to help integrate mobile into the company, which “fundamentally changed the culture of the company.”

Williams says Huddle’s platform is intuitive and easily adopted by employees.

“People were curious as to why we were doing it to begin with,” he says. “But if you make it easier for someone to pick up and review papers via Huddle they’re going to do that rather than print or using email.”

“Huddle’s high quality means it can be pushed to people with little IT knowledge,” he says. “You pick it up and they can get it on their iPad or whatever and essentially self-teach how to use it.”

Williams says since its partnership three years ago, access through Huddle is now almost seen as a “human right” by board members and executives.

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