In an earlier post, I described how new technologies are created by combining existing ones. Put a whole bunch of data servers together, add an Internet connection, and presto, you have a cloud. Add a bunch of 3D printers and you have manufacturing on demand. It’s called “combinatorial innovation” and the same dynamic applies to knowledge itself.
Innovators have discovered that if you splice together knowledge from different disciplines, you can create a rich and fertile space for innovation. And it doesn’t always require technology. For example, think of behavioral economics, which sits at the intersection of psychology and economics.
The Medici Effect
By combining different fields of knowledge, innovators can gain new insights into existing problems and attack them from different angles. First documented by Frans Johansson in his book The Medici Effect, innovation often occurs when ideas and concepts from two disciplines are combined. One example he cites is the singer Shakira who fused Latin and Arabic influences into a unique sound. According to Johansson, three forces - the movement of people, the convergence of science, and the leap of computation - are creating more intersections than ever before.
We are starting to see these intersections in the insurance industry. One example is John Hancock’s Vitality life insurance program, which combines life insurance with wellness. It incents policyholders to exercise and get annual checkups and flu shots with the chance to win Apple Watches and Fitbits. It’s turned life insurance into a sort of game.
Another example is the Willis Towers Watson product called CyFI that covers cyber insurance and fidelity. According to the press release1:
“Currently, neither cyber insurance policies nor fidelity policies singularly cover the scope of losses associated with social engineering claims, and as a result, critical areas of exposure are not adequately protected. CyFI bridges this gap by providing institutions with additional capacity that sits above their insurance program’s existing attachment points for individual primary cyber and fidelity placements.”
Combinatorial knowledge can be applied in virtually any context. Talent management is another example. In a prior post, our Director of Human Resources, Dorene Morgan, wrote about the New Insurance Analyst, who combines industry expertise, technology acumen, and business savvy. On a similar theme, McKinsey in “Product managers for the digital world”2, wrote:
“Unlike product managers of the past, who were primarily focused on execution and were measured by the on-time delivery of engineering projects, the product manager of today is increasingly the mini-CEO of the product. They wear many hats, using a broad knowledge base to make trade-off decisions, and bring together cross-functional teams, ensuring alignment between diverse functions.”
Yet another example is the recent call for more Liberal Arts majors in college. Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, just release a book titled ‘The Fuzzy and Techie”3. In it he argues that fuzzies (humanities or social sciences majors) play key roles in Silicon Valley because they can look at problems from different perspectives with empathy and context.
A Golden Age of Innovation
All these examples point to the need to be able to combine knowledge to create innovative solutions to problems. This is one of the principles behind Instec’s insurance platform. With our library of 30,000 forms and 20 years of bureau updates, insurers can create custom coverages, class codes, and products in minutes without coding. As insurers find new ways to combine content with context, the golden age of product innovation begins.
1 McCarthy, Colleen. Willis Towers Watson launches innovative insurance product to protect financial institutions against social engineering losses. Willis Towers Watson. November 2, 2016.
2 Gnanasambandam, C., Harrysson, M., Srivastava, S., & Wu, Y. Product managers for the digital world. McKinsey & Company. May 2017.
3 Hartley, Scott. (2017). The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kevin Mason has worked in many aspects of software development since 1981, including roles as product strategist, software development methodologist, project manager, and technology architect for companies such as Cincinnati Bell Information Systems, SHL Systemhouse (now part of EDS), AGENCY.COM, and GENECA. He joined Instec in 2008 and is responsible for development associated with all products. He holds a BA in Political Science, from the University of Iowa and an AS in Computer Science.