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There was a collective sigh across the Internet the other day when news circulated that Godrej and Boyce, the world’s last typewriter manufacturer, had closed its production facility in Mumbai, and that its inventory was down to just a few hundred remaining machines. For most, the news was surprising mainly because folks had figured the last typewriter maker must have closed shop years ago. Isn’t everybody on computers these days? Apparently not. In India, where Godrej & Boyce is located, typewriters were still used heavily by government offices until recently when the inexorable switch to computers hastened the typewriter’s demise.

Today, the technology is pretty much an artifact of a bygone age, and seen most commonly in antique shops or in retro-shops where the novelty of older technology holds a certain appeal for hipsters and the like who see such things as oddly liberating from modern word processing and everything that goes along with it, like accounting spreadsheets, company-wide memos and press releases.

Having said that, the Wall Street Journal noted in a follow-up story that the news of the Godrej closing has causes a nostalgic surge of interest in old typewriters. At the same time, there is at least one other company, in New Jersey, of all places, that still makes typewriters, the Journal notes. As it turns out, the plant Godrej closed down manufactured office-style typewriters; there still is a market for portables, it seems. And that it to say nothing of the secondary market for typewriters as conversation pieces, decorative furniture, or even as a companion bit of tech for your iPad. (This last one reminds me of the application WriteRoom, which turns your computer screen into that early word processing look of green on black, so you can zero out distractions and just focus on writing. Ah, the good old days.)

The funny thing about this story is how often it is reported that Godrej & Boyce is closing its doors, as if that is the end of the company. It might be the end of that part of the company, sure, but a lot of the reporting overlooks the fact that Godrej & Boyce is part of a much larger, much more diversified manufacturing effort that will surely survive the loss of its typewriter manufacturing operations. While the company got into typewriters back in the 1950s as part of India’s industrialization, Godrej had the sense to invest in more than just that. Good for them.

I think this is a lesson that the insurance industry, and especially the life & health world, can learn from. Historically, the insurance industry has had an interesting relationship with new technology. It was one of the first to make widespread use of computers. And I’m not talking about PCs, I’m talking about those old ENIAC-type monstrosities that filled a room. At a time when the very use of computers was still under debate, insurers were way, way, way ahead of the curve.  So much so, in fact, that you could argue that early computer spending by the insurance industry helped make possible the personal computer revolution that followed.

Ironically, that’s where the industry’s early-adopter status came back to haunt it. The so-called “legacy” systems insurers developed to run on their old machines were, over time, modified, upgraded, rewritten, repaired and added on to in such a way that made them extremely difficult to port over to any new format. Anybody who remembers the run-up to 2000 and all of the expense that went into safeguarding insurance data against the dreaded Y2K problem knows just how troublesome it was to safeguard conventional computer systems, let along get data off of a legacy system. In some cases, companies simply had to rebuild entire new systems at great cost in both equipment and personnel, going through their entire data banks line by line to ensure that nothing was lost. And even when paying that kind of meticulous detail, every industry expert I spoke to at the time confided that 100% data preservation was impossible. Everybody porting over lost something. The question was, how much.

The history of legacy systems offers a compelling look at the industry’s double-sided relationship with technology. The rise of social media, for example, has done more to expand how insurers can communicate with their prospects and policyholders since the advent of the World Wide Web. At the same time, all one do is look to Aflac to see how that same tool can suddenly become as much as a liability as an asset. (To Aflac’s credit, they handled the reputational problem deftly and quickly, replacing Gottfried quickly enough to prevent any lasting damage to what must surely be one of the insurance industry’s more successful ad campaigns in recent years.)

Another interesting example is the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which has mandated numerous changes that have significant tech components to them. Consider, for example, the new accountable care organization program that PPACA has obliged Medicare to establish. The concept of it is to create a vehicle through which, starting in 2012, health care providers can be paid for treating whole patients rather than carrying out individual medical procedures. In so doing, the program will encourage doctors and hospitals to make greater use of electronic health records (which they have been relatively slow to do), which will, in turn, drive down health care and health insurance costs. Whether or not the cost reduction aspect will be realized remains to be seen. There are those within the health insurance industry who remain skeptical.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of game-changing technology that comes to mind, however, are the health insurance exchanges, also mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. To proponents, the exchanges provide people, especially those from lower earning levels, with a relatively cheap and simple way to abide by the individual mandate portion of PPACA. Put another way: with state exchanges in place, it will be easier than ever before to get bare bones health coverage. To critics, the exchanges are simply taking something like and applying it to an inappropriate use, commoditizing what really should not be commoditized, and eliminating from the transaction insurance agents who argue that without their expertise, consumers will run a serious risk of not buying the kind of coverage that is most appropriate for them. So far, there has been a serious amount of political lobbying on the part of the industry to force some kind of role for agents into the exchanges, but it seems doubtful that such efforts will yield the kind of results that agents themselves are hoping for.

Ultimately, the rise of insurance exchanges is what technologists would consider a lateral innovation. The web has been around for a while, as has been a browswer interface for buying something in a commoditized fashion. What the real change here is the way in which people use this technology. Nintendo proved that you can make a fortune thinking this way, when they got a jump on competitors Microsoft and Sony by releasing the Wii game console using largely pre-existing technology, beating their competitors to market and avoiding budget-busting R&D costs. Likewise, the health exchanges are a fairly simple premise that would have been impossible 20 years ago. And while insurers have long understood that you can sell online, few of them ever seemed to take that challenge to the hilt, relying instead on sales structures that, when the government mandated a change, suddenly proved to be more vulnerable than previously thought. This is not a knock on the industry per se, but it is a telling example of how sometimes the most game-changing technology can be the one right under your nose. With that in mind, perhaps if there are a few health insurance professionals out there who see the passing of the typewriter and feel a strange inner longing for the sound of a carriage return, well, who could blame them?


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