(Editor's note: This feature on Joan Falcetta of MetLife is the fourth of five articles we will post this week on our 2011 Insurance IT All-Stars.)
Joan Falcetta has held a variety of positions within the IT operations of MetLife over her 23-year career with the financial services leader—both on the technical side and in leadership positions—but of the technical roles the one she loved the most was that of a data architect.
“I thought that absolutely was fun—taking technology and actually loving what I did everyday,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how much fun I was having designing databases and then the systems that use that data. That’s kind of geeky sounding, isn’t it?”
Falcetta discovered she had an affinity for development.
“I compared it with sculpture,” she says. “You start with a block—basically the last program because you never start from scratch—and you carve it into what you need this time. I loved that you could see that happen in front of you. It was just so easy for me to think in two dimensions—rows and columns. Even today, I prefer data in tables instead of written in text. I haven’t figured out how to think like a cube yet.”
Falcetta currently is a vice president in Technology & Operations for MetLife, responsible for the U.S. Business IT Shared Services organization, which delivers common solutions and services across U.S. Business and in some cases, the enterprise. She also serves as the vice-chair of the ACORD Standards Committee.
Falcetta left data behind, for the most part, to move into management in the late 1990s. She has worked in a variety of leadership positions and has gained an appreciation of the technology staff that does the day-to-day work.
“The expectation that we never stop delivering value to our customers and keeping that momentum going is pretty daunting to me,” says Falcetta. “The expectation is that we are trusted partners, forward-looking, and give the business insight while successfully delivering on things that have to drive competitive advantage. And by the way, they have to be scalable, timely, have quality, and be delivered at the best possible cost.”
For process changes that will affect all of MetLife’s U.S. Business IT, Falcetta leverages her own team first to interact with other parts of the IT organization.
“We don’t roll out anything unless we’ve vetted it or piloted it first,” she says. “When I present something to my peers, I have a good level of confidence that it’s the right thing to do, that it’s been working, and has good benefits.”
Many of the challenges insurance IT operations face haven’t changed, but Falcetta maintains the emphasis on technology keeps growing. Those challenges include governance and finding ways to drive operational efficiencies.
“Our business leader for U.S. Business, Bill Mullaney, uses the term ‘create financial capacity.’ What he’s saying is show me ways we can invest short term to save money so that we can then invest in more growth,” she says.
MetLife also focuses on issues such as legacy systems, regulatory compliance, and customer privacy, according to Falcetta.
“These are issues that we’ve been addressing for years, but the focus continues to increase,” she says. “There are new challenges as well, such as mobility and social media.”
All insurers are trying to figure out how to fit mobile technology and social media into their customer-facing channels.
“Younger customers have an expectation around mobility. We have programs that are focusing on doing more online as well as focusing on the customers in that basic age group,” she says. “We have a rapid underwriting program for term life, which is moving [customers] toward an online experience while also reducing the amount of time it takes to do things. Also, distribution partners want to maximize their revenue therefore we need to have us be as easy as possible to do business with.”
Mobility is creating an easier and more cost effective way of doing business, explains Falcetta. The more flexible and innovative insurers become in that area the more they become a partner of choice to their distribution partners.
“That’s a great opportunity for us,” she says. “If you think about auto/home business, the distributors have many choices of carriers to pick from and they tend to gravitate toward the carrier that has the best experience for them.”
Falcetta believes social media and mobility are creating new channels for insurers.
“Mobility will be table stakes for all of our channels as we enable our partners and customers to do business the way they want to do business,” she says. “Think about a person 25-years-old and the only way to buy insurance is through an agent who comes into their home. That’s totally incongruous for that person. Having trusted insurance experts will always be a cornerstone of our industry, but we need to provide channel flexibility.”
Falcetta points out she can buy anything she wants on a smartphone, so why not life insurance?
“That’s where we need to get to and we have to get there sooner rather than later,” she says.
Another key issue for the industry is the need to reduce operational complexity, explains Falcetta.
“We need to retire and consolidate systems,” she says. “There is an overarching need to take some of the complexity out of our environment. That goes back to creating the financial capacity to do other things. If we are too busy working to keep the lights on, we might be missing other growth opportunities.”
As she has moved through IT leadership positions, Falcetta recognizes how difficult it is to maintain the technical knowledge she developed early in her career.
“It’s now a balance among the business focus, the business of technology, and the technology itself,” she says. “I have a great team of people with deep technical skills that enable me to look broadly at the technology, making sure we are moving in the right direction, taking advantage of developing opportunities while avoiding and mitigating risks.”