E-Mail: Past The Point Of Diminishing Returns

People by nature tend to look forward for the next big thing and build solutions accordingly. However, I think it’s also important to look back and ask key questions to gauge the usefulness of “old” technology because there are times when the past hinders the future. E-mail is a striking example.

E-mail started (depending on whom you ask) in 1961 with MIT’s CTSS (Compatible Time Sharing Program) during a time when long-distance telephone calls were expensive and other techniques such as text chat were non-existent. This system laid the foundation for electronic text information exchange.

Over the next 50 years, e-mail went from a useful way to exchange information to little more than a distracting way to keep your to-do list. E-mail has caused quite a few problems along the way, including:

  • Creating distance between people because it’s just “easier” to e-mail (although less meaningful).
  • Causing confusion (or worse) when readers misunderstand writers.
  • Creating havoc in computer systems because of e-mail-based viruses.
  • Creating wasted effort removing spam.
  • Opening up an entirely new form of legal discovery with some pretty dire results (the examples are almost endless).

What’s worse, those in my sphere of influence fail to move to more innovative solutions because e-mail is “good enough,” and in that way, it’s a crutch that stifles real efficiency.

Take the submission process between agents and MGAs as an example. Instead of direct integration, e-mail with PDF attachments are exchanged and since it’s inexpensive and “easy” (although inefficient and error prone), it continues to be the dominate means of information exchange. If e-mail wasn’t there, we’d be integrating on the data level, eliminating redundancy in the industry.

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What I’m saying is that e-mail is past the point of diminishing returns. It’s causing more problems than it solves and I’d argue that the problems it solves (e.g., simple multi-person information exchanges) are better handled using things like SMS and social networks. So then, what should companies do?

I believe the answer is to admit that e-mail is causing more problems than it solves, but understand that e-mail isn’t going away despite its shortcomings. Accepting those two facts can help create a strategy to deal with it.

In the excess and surplus lines business, e-mail is a means of sharing policy information between agents, brokers, general agents, and carriers. Instead of cutting off e-mail (since that’s not an option), innovate as if it wasn’t there. Instead of trying to get rid of e-mail, simply recognize the crutch, throw it away, and figure out how to exchange information from there.

If we as IT managers for MGAs, create strategies to exchange information assuming there is no e-mail, we are compelled to get information from agents directly. Fortunately, the capability is already there through various means, including form interrogation and direct agency management system integration. Such integration is far more efficient than e-mail and, over time, far less expensive (consider the time savings alone). We first need to act as if e-mail doesn’t exist, which breeds the impetus for change.

On the carrier side, they need coverage forms and need to share policy information—and receive policies, in some cases—between agencies and MGAs. Again, the technology is already there with the Real Time Campaign and several solutions offered by vendors. If they act as if e-mail isn’t there, the drive to move forward manifests itself and the crutch is removed.

As the drive to move forward compels the insurance industry to innovate, it’s equally important to evaluate “old” technologies to ensure they are not hampering progress. E-mail is such an impediment and it’s important that we innovate around it.

About the Author
Frank Neugebauer

Frank Neugebauer

Frank Neugebauer joined United Educators (UE) in 2012 as its first Chief Information Officer. He brings extensive experience in insurance and technology to UE. Neugebauer formerly served as CIO at the Kaufman Financial Group and CTO at ACORD.


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