American Family CIO takes entrepreneurial approach to innovation

American Family CIO takes entrepreneurial approach to innovation

Byrne Chapman, CIO of American Family

When Byrne Chapman started his career in IT, weatherman probably wasn’t one of the variations he imagined. Yet the business needs at American Family Insurance have taken him in just that direction. Byrne Chapman’s organization has started handling terabytes of storm data from the national weather service.
They use that information to predict storm paths and match the predictions to the locations of their policy-holders. It’s all part of a plan to be prepared for quicker response when customers call for help in times of disaster.
The advancement of putting weather prediction into the claims process came out of discussions with one of the American Family business units. Byrne treats his IT organization like a consulting business, working with the various insurance lines to understand their business needs and to help them envision new uses for technology. That approach ties in closely with one of American Family’s core values, to leverage innovation.
Byrne also knows that the units he serves can’t just write a blank check for any innovation. “Whenever we develop a proposal we always create at least three options,” he said. “I like to think of them like cars. You’ll always see the bare-bones Yugo-type option, a solid, middle-of-the-road Chevy-type option, and a full-featured Cadillac-type option. You can’t use technology like a hammer and just pound something in place. It’s got to fit the business need.”
In addition to the good ideas that come out of discussions with other business leaders, Byrne encourages his IT staff to think about ways to improve the business using technology. He established an internal venture-capital process. A staff member with an idea can make a pitch for some venture capital to develop a prototype, which is then demonstrated to the business units. If they see the value, it can end up in full production.
That’s how their Web-based application process got started. One of the IT staff heard that nearly half of all paper applications were returned to agents for additional information or correction. The prototype demonstrated that the instant validation and electronic capture of the information on the application reduced initial errors and eliminated mistakes from re-keying the data. What started out targeted at personal insurance lines was so successful that it now is in use for several American Family lines of insurance.
With more than 1300 employees and contractors working on information technology at American Family, there’s a lot of potential for good ideas, but that number also poses one of Byrne’s greatest challenges.
“Keeping that many people on the same page requires a real investment in communication,” Byrne said. He makes sure his staff know where American Family is headed and why, and also what the IT staff can do to contribute. In addition to regular meetings with his direct reports, he’s committed to meeting individually with all the managers in his organization and to regular interactions with the staff. He even has a strategic-communications consultant dedicated to his group.
With that many staff, you might not expect Byrne to be worried about finding new hires when they’re needed. But from his perspective, that’s one of the significant challenges for technology in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin universities and technical colleges are turning out lots of qualified candidates, but making them aware of the opportunities here at home and getting them to stay is another matter.
Internships are one of Byrne’s favorite marketing tools to the next generation of technologists. He’s justifiably proud of partnerships with UW-Whitewater and the local technical colleges. That might also explain why Byrne says he’d probably be a teacher if he wasn’t in technology.
The insurance business is the focus of his attention, so it’s not surprising that electronic document management is something he follows closely. He’s also very interested in advances in automated workflow tools including business rules engine technology. He’s recently begun using that technology to put management of business rules in the hands of those who are running the insurance lines, so that things like a change in interest rates can be handled directly without involving a programmer. Byrne is also watching how technology might be used to allow geographically remote parts of the company to back each other up when responding to local disasters.
Whether it’s following new technologies himself, having new approaches percolate up from the staff, or listening with a good business ear to the clients he and his organization serve, Byrne Chapman leads his organization to find innovative ways to use technology to meet the needs of American Family customers. Though the insurance industry has been around for a long, long time, it fits right into the emerging knowledge economy. And even though the technology may change as frequently as the weather, Byrne will help American Family be ready, no matter what the next front blows in.

Q&A with Byrne Chapman

What’s the latest book you’ve read?
“Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown
What web sites do you visit regularly?,
What magazines do you read regularly?
CIO, Forbes, Fortune
What’s your favorite quote on leadership?
“Hire the best people you can … and get out of the way” – Howard Adamsky
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Working in a warehouse when I was very young.

Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC of Madison Wis. Prairie Star specializes in managing the organizational impacts of technology. He can be contacted via e-mail at or via telephone at 608/345-3958.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.