Lake views from the Milwaukee innovation labs

Deborah Van Dommelen

VP and Chief Medical Director

Lessons on Innovation: Developing Cross-functional Partnerships

Topics: home.

In the insurance business, we spend a lot of time reviewing medical records. These days, most of that information comes to us electronically – which you think would make the reviews more efficient compared to sifting through reams of paper documents. Not necessarily. In fact, it sometimes takes us twice as long to review electronic records because the data is coming in from multiple providers with inconsistent formatting, and files often include duplicate data or are cluttered with “junk.”

This makes it challenging for our underwriters and claims analysts, as well as my team when we are sent cases to review. This year, we launched a concerted effort to find a solution on their (and our) behalf. Our hope is that artificial intelligence has progressed to the point where we could use it to get rid of duplicate data, better organize the information we're receiving and flag the information we consider most important.

Our medical teams may not be experts at researching technology solutions, but within our company, we know who is – so we partnered with Digital Innovation to see if it could be done. We had already been collaborating with them for the better part of a year and, while it seems the solution is not yet ready for prime time, I've already learned a lot about the value of reaching across functional areas to foster innovation and – as a practical matter – how to do so effectively.

Here’s what I recommend if you’re going to develop a cross-functional partnership:

Know the innovators. In our organization, everyone is encouraged to innovate. A few times a year, we host campaigns designed to generate new ideas, which demonstrates how important innovation is to our company. All employees are welcome and encouraged to participate. It's a chance for employees to exercise their creative muscles to solve problems in new ways. As leaders, these events give us an opportunity to identify the people who have real talents in different areas of innovation, so we can play to those strengths. Once we do that, we can be even more deliberate and collaborative across other areas of the company to achieve larger strategic goals.

Focus the enthusiasm. Artificial intelligence attracts a lot of attention. It's great to be enthusiastic about the possibilities of AI, but you can't chase every idea and AI is not the tool for every project. You also can't focus solely on the technology; you have to understand the problem you're trying to solve. I've found reaching across functional areas helps foster a sense of focus and direction, because it forces us to think beyond our little corner of the world (or the latest and greatest technology) to ensure our ideas align with the broader company strategy.

Trust the experts. Throughout the collaborative effort, let the experts do their thing. The team we're currently working with to identify a technology solution has a lot of experience deploying tech solutions across the enterprise. At some point, we'll also rely on them to help us select vendors, negotiate contracts, establish budgets, manage the project and help facilitate touchpoints with other functions within the organization, such as compliance.

Don't give up. Today, it looks like AI isn't quite ready to meet our specific needs, but in the innovation space, “no” doesn't really mean “no.” Most of the time, it simply means “not now.” Technology is progressing at such a rapid pace; who knows what next year will bring? And we'll be watching (along with our expert research partners) because the challenges we face with disparate data are not going to go away.

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