An Interview with Brendan Mills, Chief Information Officer, nib Group


“Over the next five years, we really believe intelligent prediction, coupled with personalised interactions, are essential. To deliver on this, we’re working to infuse artificial intelligence across everything we do, with a number of initiatives already on our roadmap.”

FST Media: Since you last spoke with FST Media back in 2015, nib’s digital innovation program has progressed leaps and bounds. As nib continues to execute its digital priorities, how will its tech strategy evolve over the next 12 months to meet the demands of an increasingly digital native customer cohort?

Mills: We believe in harnessing the power of data science and digital technologies to deliver more personalised healthcare for our members and to help improve individual and population health, so we are excited to see our efforts in this space come to life in the not too distant future.

A great example of this is in our New Zealand business, where we are managing population health for one of our Auckland-based hapū, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. 

We are currently exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies can be used to build great member experiences and, at the same time, improve operational efficiencies by augmenting existing teams for decision-making in areas such as customer service, retention, claims, and fraud detection.

In addition, over the next 12 months we’ll be focusing on continued investment in cloud technologies, a serverless API platform, digitising core insurance platforms, a new mobile app, a new project with IoT/wearables, and further personalisation of the member experience and many other digital offerings that start to move the business from a focus on ‘sick care’ to ‘health care’.

FST Media: nib appears to be at the coalface of insurance innovation, leveraging AI to augment both its front- and back-office functions. How have nib’s AI investments paid dividends for the business so far?

Mills: With the help of digital technologies, artificial intelligence and our early adoption of cloud platforms, we’ve enhanced our service capability while still maintaining our high level of member service in a rapidly changing and complex environment.

For instance, we’ve seen great success with our chatbot, ‘nibby’, which was a first of its kind innovation for private health insurance in Australia. It’s been fantastic to see how nibby has helped improve the member experience through faster handling times, first point resolution, and directing members to the right information.

In the last 12 months, nibby handled more than 45,000 member interactions with an 85 per cent success rate, saving over 1,300 hours of consultant handling time. We’ve also now expanded nibby’s role to support our Group operations, including our international students and workers’ businesses, and New Zealand. We have an ongoing investment planned and a dedicated team to focus on ‘digital assistants’ as we take this capability even further.

Claims processing and automation continues to be an area of opportunity for us, with a reasonable portion of the industry still not digitised, so we are investing energy into looking at how we can use the power of Machine Learning into claim recognition and adjudication. While it’s early days still, we are seeing some very promising signs to be able to cost out and focus on higher value member touch points.

FST Media: You’ve highlighted the success of nib’s dedicated customer-facing chatbot, nibby, where it has notably improved member interactions and relieved pressure on frontline employees. However, not all customers are won over by these digital touchpoints. Where do you feel are the limits of digital engagement platforms in delivering a holistic service offering to members?

Mills: I’m not sure there are ‘limits’ as such.  What I think we will see is a continued focus on augmenting human interactions with digital engagement. Many of our members will traverse different channels in their interactions with us, which we see as perfectly normal, and our NPS (net promoter score) would suggest it also works for the member.

At the end of the day, we want to provide digital offerings that meet the needs of our members, not just what works for us as a business. Members will choose to interact with us on mobile apps, digital assistants, web, or traditional voice, depending on their circumstances or personal need – our job is to ensure we service them holistically through whatever channel they choose and ensure each is member-centric and we have broken down any internal silos to achieve that.

We’re constantly looking at how we can allow our members to interact with us on new and emerging channels and see digital assistant channels growing rapidly over the coming years through a variety of conversational interfaces. 

FST Media: Cloud technologies are often touted as the key enabler for financial services to innovate at scale and speed. How is cloud being utilised to help maximise nib’s digital potential?

Mills: nib has been an early adopter of cloud technology and I can only see that investment continuing. So much of what we are focused on digitally now relies upon the investment in the cloud platform we have built. The move to cloud has required significant technology and cultural change and, while that can’t be underestimated, cloud has simply become a key pillar in our technology delivery model.   

The majority of our digital assets are now on our cloud platform, as are other enterprise or back-office services. We are also actively working through with the regulator and our partners the migration of core insurance systems to our public cloud platform.

Like a lot of organisations, we run a cloud-first approach and continue to have a bias for the adoption of cloud, SaaS and the like, rather than a license and build approach.

For us, the adoption of cloud technologies has really unlocked innovation in areas such as Artificial Intelligence. The DNA of our organisation is one of experimentation, and cloud is just one of many enablers to allow us to pivot at speed and innovate. Culture is key, though, and cloud platforms drive new IT operating models, such as adopting a DevOps culture with a focus on continuous delivery. These things can’t be under-estimated in terms of turning the ship.  

FST Media: Insurers today are collecting and processing unprecedented volumes of data. What is the single biggest challenge preventing insurers from effectively using their data assets to improve business decision-making and customer-focused innovation?

Mills: In our experience, it has to be the ‘last mile’ – or operationalising of the data or insight into the workflow or customer-orientated solution. I think we have become pretty sophisticated at the first mile – acquiring or organising data, as well as processing large volumes of data, but less so on making sure we build solutions from the ground-up that have the last mile in mind.

This is particularly relevant when we are looking to take existing platforms and drive greater insights with existing data elements, and perhaps coupling them with supplementary data rather than newer platforms where we might be reimaging a complete customer solution end-to-end.

Legacy systems continue to be a challenge with interoperability and lack of APIs in some cases, but we are solving that with investment in services layers so we can continue to integrate the old while implementing the new.

Of course, data protection, privacy, and security are key foundations to handling large volumes of data and, in addition, we are also focused on having the right ethical frameworks in place as we operationalise this ‘last mile’.

FST Media: Compliance is often viewed as a stumbling block to innovation. How can regulation be used to inspire innovative thinking, rather than stifle it, particularly where customers are concerned?

Mills: Many of us operate within regulated entities and, so, the real key issue is how do we differentiate and increase the value proposition over and above the product while still working within the regulatory and compliance frameworks or guardrails we have. Our members still expect us to be innovating, despite whatever guard rails we work within; they somewhat take it as a given that we are operating within the compliance and regulatory regime. We also tend to function with a philosophy of “the bigger the brakes, the faster the car”, so we tend to embrace compliance and risk culture as an enabler.

From a platform perspective, we are also looking at ways in which we can work with regulations and our regulator around leveraging cloud platforms for extreme risk workloads. Rather than feel constrained by what could initially appear as barriers, we have taken an innovative approach to building capability, working closely with our regulator, which will allow us to leverage capabilities of our cloud services partner, Amazon Web Services, beyond the typical digital and test/dev footprint.

I know they get talked about a lot, but Uber and peer-to-peer lending platforms are good examples. These showcase where particular regulations have driven innovative thinking around the problem. Coupled with other barriers to entry and strong digital offerings, they have certainly shaken up various markets.

FST Media: You previously cited IoT as the next game-changer in insurance. Four years on, do you see a different technology making waves in insurance over the next five years?

Mills: I still think IoT has a huge opportunity to bring products and services to new and existing markets. I probably thought we’d have seen a quicker rate of adoption than we have, to be honest. Notwithstanding the huge leaps in technology, we haven’t seen as much mainstream adoption as I expected just yet.

Over the next five years, we really believe intelligent prediction, coupled with personalised interactions, are essential. To deliver on this, we’re working to infuse artificial intelligence across everything we do, with a number of initiatives already on our roadmap.

There’s no doubt, with the greater availability of large datasets from both inside and outside our organisations (and with appropriate consent), we can be providing our members greater insights into their health, or any other relevant products or services we may be offering them. Through our growing data science capability and other related investments, we’ll be heavily focused on predicting health issues, proactively managing these events, and personalising the healthcare journey.

The introduction of deeply embedded AI and machine learning technologies will change the way our members view and interact with us, as it drives us away from being a traditional payer of claims and towards being a health partner across the entire journey – reimagining what health insurance means into the future.

Brendan Mills will be featured on the Digital Innovation panel at FST’s Insurance Summit, Sydney on the 12 September, 2019. Spots are strictly limited. Register now!