Episode 4

Why Data Is the North Star at New York Life

Data science may be the new kid on the life insurance block, but New York Life’s Alex Cook is no stranger. Learn how data management and analysis have transformed their business – from talent acquisition to product innovation – to meet their customers’ demands.

Listen on your favorite platform

We take your privacy seriously so in order to view the video content, please accept all cookies

Share on Social Media

Time Stamps


Consumer expectations have shifted, and digital experiences are a prerequisite.

The life insurance industry has been slow to innovate. Head of Strategic Capabilities, Alex Cook, discusses how New York Life has bucked the trend and led the industry in digital transformation, including agile development and artificial intelligence. Cook explains how investing in and partnering with technology startups have helped them meet modern customers’ demands.

Learn how data science has played a pivotal role in helping New York Life customers prosper.

Key Takeaways:

    • For most large, global life insurance companies, internal change can be difficult. Investing in and partnering with nimble tech startups can be a faster way to innovate.

    • Data science and artificial intelligence aren’t just the future in Silicon Valley. By investing in data management, New York Life has made significant strides in talent acquisition, professional development, and product innovation.

    • Life insurance is a social good. Digitization makes it more accessible and helps modern customers prosper in the long-term.

We have a much better ability now to understand – as we're looking at deploying new capabilities – how can we understand the impact of what we're doing on our clients and on our agents and advisors? And that understanding is critical for our ability to move in a much more agile way. To continuously improve what it is that we do.

Alex Cook

SVP, Head of Strategic Capabilities, New York Life

Our Guest

Alex Cook

LinkedIn Website

Alex Cook, Senior Vice President, is the Head of Strategic Capabilities at New York Life, and is responsible for enterprise technology, strategy and planning, underwriting, data and analytics, strategic solutions, and New York Life Ventures, the company’s venture capital arm. Alex is focused on driving strategic growth, innovation, and data-based decision making through better technology, data, and analytics. He was appointed to New York Life’s Executive Management Committee in March 2020.

Alex joined New York Life in 2010 as Managing Director of Strategy for the Investments division, and subsequently became Head of Corporate Strategy from 2012–2014. In 2015, Alex assumed the role of Senior Vice President and Head of Strategy, Data & Analytics for the Insurance and Agency Group, and from 2016-2017 took on additional responsibilities for marketing strategy, customer experience, and market research and insights as the Chief Customer & Analytics Officer. From 2017-2019, Alex served as Senior Vice President, Chief Data & Analytics Officer and Head of Retail Life.

Alex’s background includes roles as Head of Strategy & Analysis at Morgan Stanley Investment Management; CFO/COO for Banking and Capital Advisory at JP Morgan Private Bank; and Head of Strategy & Development for JPMorgan Asset & Wealth Management.

Alex received his BS in Economics and Decision Sciences and an MBA in Strategy and Operations Research from Carnegie Mellon.


Alex Cook: We stood up a data science academy and we've got technical tracks as well as business tracks. And we've had hundreds of people go through that academy and that gives a much better understanding of what it is that they can do to change the business and continuously improve and look for really good opportunities for us to apply data science and AI to improve the business.

Anthony O'Donnell: I'm Anthony O'Donnell and this is life accelerated, a podcast for life insurers striving to achieve digital transformation. One of the more fascinating advancements in technology at the last decade has been artificial intelligence. Its potential effects on how insurers can act on data are hard to calculate, but New York life's initiatives gives us an illuminating view into what's called.

In this episode, we discuss how this institution is taking advantage of AI with the help of Alex Cook, head of strategic capabilities at New York life. And his role, Alex oversees a number of important areas, including planning and strategy, technology, underwriting, data science, and AI data strategy implementation and New York life ventures. The company's venture capital unit.

Alex Cook: All those collectively are key elements of how we drive change and modernize the company to support our overall mission, which is to provide peace of mind and financial security for our families across the country.

Anthony O'Donnell: As a strategist and change agent, Alex shares with us how New York life approach is transforming.

Alex Cook: How do you ensure that you've got a really clear understanding of the long-term strategy of the organization? And then how change really benefits the ability for us to execute on that strict. And drive the, alignment that we know, we want to have, with our mission and our values.

Anthony O'Donnell: Alex discusses how New York life faces a challenge, common to large incumbent companies.

Alex Cook: Often you've got a very large established company, very successful. How do you drive change at an organization like that?

Here's how New York life is using data strategy, artificial intelligence, and culture to address the innovators.

We've been on a journey to modernize a lot of our core legacy technology platforms. We still have mainframe systems that date back to the 1970s and 1980s for policy administration, as an example.

Alex Cook: And we started our journey to modernize. All of that core technology suite. And we started with our new business and underwriting area, which has really focused on the entirety of the application process and underwriting. And that has come a long, long way. We'll be rolling out a new platform, later this year and into next year.

Modern aspects of how you want to be able to go to market and meet customer and agent expectations. In the modern age, we've made a lot of advancements already around electronic applications and enabling fast track underwriting without the need for collecting your blood and other fluids to get lab information.

And we've made advances there, but the new platform will enable us to bring that all together. With a heightened focus on how do we automate and how do we create a better experience for our agents and for our customers. So that's a first, very important step forward. And then next on the horizon will be a lot of our core policy administration and compensation systems.

So driving that focus is a very large investment, tens of millions of dollars, well over a hundred million dollars of investment just in this area. And that that's something that you can't take lightly and requires a long-term view to make sure that you're doing that in a good way.

The other key area that we're looking at modernizing is really enhancing what is the core of our value proposition, which is - our human centered advice and guidance that our agents and advisors provide to families across the country. And there we've made a lot of investments in developing better, a customer relationship management platform, as well as ensuring that we've got a much better ability for those agents and advisors.

Alex Cook: To engage in robust dialogue with their clients around what their client's needs are with any protection, first planning framework, but enabled by tools that can be used at the point of. To really make the purchase process much easier, understanding that not just from a transactional basis, but really ensuring that our agents and advisors understand their client's needs holistically and consult for them with a broader array of solutions that we can bring to bear.

But within a very important context of understanding needs over a long-term horizon and ensuring that we've got a focus on enabling those fans. To protect what matters most, but also to prosper in the long-term. And that's core to what we do as a company in many ways, that is the key value that we deliver.

And it's an important dynamic of what we do and ensuring that is also a model. Process is critical. And so we've developed a new tool called guide me, which is our first step towards creating that digital sales platform that really enables that kind of client and advisor experience to blossom.

Anthony O'Donnell: What are the ways New York life has embraced? The InsureTech movement was by founding New York life ventures. What does New York life ventures do as an autonomous entity? And what is its role in accelerating innovation at New York?

A New York life ventures is a corporate venture capital. group that was formed a decade ago. We were early to the InsureTech space. In fact, I think we helped coin that term and, we've got a really good focus on. Having that group, as a means of not only generating really good investment returns, which they have done really excellent track record there over the past decade.

Alex Cook: And that's to the benefit of our general account returns, which then end up going back to policy owners in the form of dividends over time. But we've also got a very important focus in that group on business development. And that is looking at startup. With an eye to what tech can they bring to the company, to enhance what we do and our modernize.

So we go through proofs of concept and we will do dozens of proofs of concept every quarter. And those lead to implementations very often where we've got a real leg up on how we get a fast track of those capabilities coming into the company to enhance some aspect of what we do. And, an example of that is.

This is a platform that is focused on supporting families at the time of the loss of a loved one, as I'm sure you know, that is a very difficult experience to go through. And just as you're dealing with the grief that comes with that, you're also faced with all these logistical management issues of how do you cope with, all the things that you go through personally, but all the financial things you have to cope.

And the support for the broader family. And if you've got a more complicated, state type situation that can be even harder to work through. So empathy has a platform that really enables that connectivity, and allows people to really understand. And help guide them through the process of all the things that they'll need to manage through in that difficult time.

So there's one example of a company that we've invested in, and that is a real partner with us in this space of offering that kind of capability to our beneficiaries. And we've made that available. Our beneficiaries across the company, a third important leg of what ventures does is just support innovation broadly at the company.

We, make sure that we are running hackathons focused on different topics and getting engagement from the, employee base around different ideas and how to bring those to market. We've got a human centered design center of excellence. Supports the important focus of looking at development with that lens of human centered design.

And so all of those three areas really come together - the innovation services, the business development unit and the investment side. And there's really good synergies across all three.

Anthony O'Donnell: Alex, let's do a brief review of some of New York life's major initiatives to improve that experience for both customers and patients.

Alex Cook: Yeah, the purchase experience in many ways starts with that engagement with Asian and Biser that I was alluding to before. Our guide me tool that we've developed which is now really a platform really enables a robust fact-finding, assessment process with the agent or advisor and the client really understanding what their needs are holistically and capturing them.

And then really enables the understanding of how their needs can be met within a protection first framework, and then allows for the solutioning that the agent and advisor can put together a package of products and solutions that will meet the needs of that client, at that moment in time, but also lays the seeds for what might be needed in the future as well.

So I think that's, One of the most critical parts of the person's experience is what is it that you are purchasing and making sure that those are the appropriate context for that is critical. The next phase is really going through the application process and for life insurance in particular, historically that is not an easy thing, as you are looking at.

The process know starkly was all done on paper very long forms that needed to get filled in, and then going through the underwriting process, which is literally a painful process at times when you're required to give blood and fluids and can take a long time when you're getting attending physician statement.

those can take, weeks to, get. So it just makes for a very long and a times uncomfortable process, and we've spent a lot of time and energy developing a much better way to do that. So it's really digital end and now for the vast majority of our applicant, there's still a paper option if people want that.

But, we've got very good adoption it's, in the very high nineties for all of our electronic application processes and then underwriting, we now are at a point where we're running pretty steadily, 55 to 60% of our applications can be done without the need for fluids. that's something that's a big step forward.

Alex Cook: We were actually at a higher point, the mid 60% range as the pandemic was more at its peak and we enabled more people to bypass the need to get lab results, but that's a very important step for. And then finally getting the results from electronic health records, as opposed to getting a sort of paper form and faxed, attending physician statements is another huge step forward.

And we're really one of the leaders in that space we've been working with epic, Cerner Virgin, and healthcare information exchanges, which are all platforms that the health, industry uses to exchange. And includes patient portal data, which is, as individuals, we all often get access to our records through our providers, portals, and we've been working on ensuring that we can use those same platforms and portals to get those records digitally, as opposed to having to get them in.

Paper form or, scanned and faxed a form. And that really just speeds up the process tremendously from suddenly that can take weeks and weeks to something that takes, a day or less and often comes in a forum that is much easier for our underwriters to read through or for us to extract information and use.

In models that we have that enable both that fast track accelerated underwriting, but also starting to actually look at using models for underwriting, decision-making so a lot of advances there and then electronic delivery of the application is, a final piece. And all those things came to bear in spades during the pandemic, without those capabilities, I think it would have been very difficult for us to continue to meet.

the need that is out there broadly for life insurance and was very much top of mind for consumers as, as the pandemic was.

Anthony O'Donnell: how so much of the better way as you describe it of, of completing the application process obviously relies on new ways of using data. And that's a good segue for talking about New York life center of data science and artificial intelligence. Tell us how that came about and the work that it's doing in support supportive New York life.

that's something that I'm very proud of. the center for data science and AI or city Sai was really formed back in 2015. It was something that I personally wanted to ensure we had as a, new strategic capability for New York life. And we really started it at that point and built the team up now to about 45 or so folks that are really bringing to bear.

their ability to look at application of machine learning, AI or statistical models to really support not only our ability to get insights faster from data and make better decisions, but also looking at ways that we can automate decision-making in key aspects of the business. give you a couple examples.

Alex Cook: I already touched on one or Life insurance, fast track model, where we determine which applicants we can bypass the need for blood and fluids, and still have a good risk assessment for determining underwriting risk class. So that's one example. another is a very important area for us. I already mentioned our sort of core foundational business being focused on our agents.

And we have a somewhat differentiated model there where, just a few, insurance companies that have a real focus on recruiting and training. as opposed to looking for already established agents and advisors to bring in to the company. And so that's core to what we do.

We have, tens of thousands of. Applicants that are looking at the agent career as an opportunity set. And we hire, in the neighborhood of 4,000 every year. And so that's a very important process for when you know, what drives our business so to really make that work even more effectively.

Alex Cook: We have digitized a lot of the dimensions of that agent recruiting and onboarding process. And we've also introduced data science models that enable our recruiters, who are in all of our general offices around the country to look at not just more traditional. information around the applicants and using their own judgment and experience to, guide the decision-making around who to hire, but using models that look at more psychometric dimensions and enable us to combine that info with a lot of the other background information that we have.

on those, recruits and combine that with the assessment of the partner and the recruiter, in that process. And that's something that has really been a important step forward for us and, paying good dividends, thus far. we'll talk more later about attracting talent in other areas across the enterprise. And I was going to say that I guess fast-track is a good example of how data and AI specifically are driving the faster conclusion of new business. What role is modern data management playing specifically in driving greater speed to market of product.

data management is critical in so many areas and it's something that for us has become really a lifeblood as it is for so many companies and how we make decisions and, getting to market faster, for product a and I'll use product in a broader term. We've got both insights that are used to help us think through.

Alex Cook: What next set of product solutions we might want to develop and what features are going to be most important and resonate the most with potential customers. But also when we look at digital product, that's another key area where. Yeah, we have a much better ability now to understand, as we're looking at deploying new capabilities.

Well, what is the adoption rate? What is the result of what has been, delivered? How can we understand the impact of what we're doing on our clients and on our agents and advisors. And that understanding is critical for our ability to move in a much more agile way. To continuously improve what it is that we do.

So I think we've made that transition from the traditional focus of, large investment, getting to a major release that then stays somewhat static for a while to much more of an agile approach. And that's really a core dimension of some of the changes that we've been making and how we have the business and technology work together to really drive change more.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, Alex, if I can use an industry buzzword here, would it be fair to say that the center is playing a key role in terms of making New York life a data-driven company?

I think it has they are a very core group, but we've also got some satellite, analytics teams in many parts of the business, not just the foundational business, been in. Businesses as well, and also corporate functional areas. And CDSA really acts as a really simple connecting point and center for excellence that provides the right kind of platforms and ability for training and for education, not just of the data scientists and data engineers that are engaged in the process, but also for anybody in the company, all the employees and managers on the business side as well, that also need to have a really good understanding of.

Alex Cook: What data science is and how it can be applied in different parts of the business. So we stood up a data science academy and we've got technical tracks as well as business tracks. And we've had hundreds of people go through that academy and that gives a much better understanding of what it is that they can do to change the business and continuously improve and look for really good opportunities for us to apply.

Data science and AI to improve the business. So that's been a very successful step forward. And that enables us really in combination with our broader move, to getting our data pooled in a more effective way, with the data hub, which is now moving to the cloud to really enable all of our business leaders to have at their fingertips, the information they need to really understand how the business is moving from.

I understand the key drivers and the economic impact of those drivers and make the right decisions based on data, as opposed to their gut sense of what might make sense to do. And look at a gut sense is also important. no question, but if you don't have a good solid basis in good data and good analysis it can be easier to make a decision that suboptimal.

So it's really critical that we're now at a point that we have the availability of that data infrastructure and the ability to analyze it effectively, and that really arms our managers with the ability to make good.

Anthony O'Donnell: Alex, you have very broad responsibilities, but they all fall within your role as a business strategist. And that's something you've been your entire career, including at major financial companies before you joined New York life. Tell us how you're applying your strategic. And to the broader question of operational efficiency.

And, you know, you talked a little earlier about New York life's plan for legacy core system transformation, which is obviously an important area for that.

Alex Cook: Yeah, look, this is something that every organization continually needs to be improving. What they do and operating efficiency is certainly a part of that. I think I look at that in a broader lens of, it's not always just looking for. Yeah, ways to do things, more efficiently, just for the sake of cutting costs.

It's often looking for ways to enhance what you do and to do that in a way that is more efficient, but often it's the end result you're looking for is not the cost savings as much as it is an enhancement. To the client experience the agent experience the ability for the company to do something in a more efficient way so that we can then reinvest in other areas that are more critical.

And that lens of how do we automate or change processes is at the heart of a lot of what Citi has AI focuses on, but we've also got a robotics process automation group that's engaged in a lot of different initiatives. We look at business process. Re-engineering, we've got a lot of focus on scaled, agile and approaches there that allow us to deliver in a much more efficient way.

And so all of these are important areas of focus and what enable us to continue to drive the company forward, ensuring that we're doing that with the lens of doing it. And efficiently, but importantly enhancing our abilities as we go forward. And at the end of the day, it's about delivering value to the policy owner and to the agent or.

How is transformation changing? The kinds of skill sets needed in the enterprise and how is New York life attracting the kind of talent it needs?

this is a very important topic because any company is only as good as its people. And, in the current market, there's a lot of competition for talent and that's something that we are contending with as every other employer is. And there are key areas where that war for talent is certainly at a, pretty red hot point areas like, digital marketing or, cloud computing, engineering.

Alex Cook: Data scientists, in many other areas, they, over the last year we saw a similar demand increase around underwriting and service reps as well. So it's not just the highly technical areas that were faced with this new dynamic. But certainly in those, those more technical, specialized areas, there's a heightened degree of competition.

So for us, it's about ensuring that we have. A very good lens on what is it that will keep folks like that engaged and wanting to stay with the company and are attracted to joining the company. And typically that is about sometimes it's compensation but more so I think it's people wanting to make a difference.

And New York life has really is a company that provides social. We are there to really support families in their time of need and ensure that they are able to have that financial security and peace of mind that enables them to then do so much more with their lives. So that kind of a mission and a purpose is attractive to a lot of people.

And that's something that I think is important. our, mutuality and the point that we are generating. returns, not for a stockholder, but for our policy enters is another very important aligning concept there. And then providing an environment that people know that they are part of a team that they're not going to be a solo.

individual working on something that may not have, full value recognition because they're part of the business that doesn't understand as much what they do or how they can contribute. I think in New York life, we really focus on ensuring that there is a very good understanding of all these different areas.

Anthony O'Donnell: Contributions. To the overall strategy and the objectives that we have and the role that they play and doing that in very close collaboration with other groups across the company. So that really is a core differentiator for us is a highly collaborative culture. Yeah, I agree very strongly about how important it is for people to be proud of, of what they're doing. I wonder also though, about changing expectations that candidates might have about things like flexible working conditions, remote work, that sort of thing.

Alex Cook: Yeah, no question. And a big context. There is, we've got a pretty flexible model. There are a lot of roles that we determined, should be fully work at home because the nature of their role. And, it was not the kind of role that needed to have a high degree of. ongoing interaction that was in person and others.

We designated as being in the office three days a week. That's our standard, for the majority of employees. And as we've started to come back in right to the offices, we're being flexible there, we haven't required people to come in at this stage, knowing that everybody has to work at their own pace.

And so we've been making sure that we take a very measured view of. Understanding the contributions people have made over the last couple of years, we were able to respond extremely well to pivoting everybody, to work at home, in a very short order. And the company is performing incredibly well.

We had record earnings, record sales. there's nothing we point to, to say, well, gee, that didn't work when we were all remote. So we get that, we know that we don't want to give up all the benefits that we have been able to take advantage of in the last couple of years and the ability to work remotely and to work virtually the ability that we've got to do that is not something that you just close the door on.

So for us, it's a matter of ensuring that we've got the right kind of engagements. for people. And that's employees, our agents that really makes them feel like they are a part of something. And for us, a lot of that is, a core aspect of our culture. Where we're we like to say we're a wee place, not a me place.

And a lot of that comes from the relationships that you form with your coworkers, your. And that is something that is important to who we are. You want to feel that you are a part of a team you're part of something larger.

That's hard to sustain. If you are in a fully virtual. And so we're absolutely focused on ensuring that when people are in the office, that they're engaging in those activities that are giving them that right. Kind of feedback and learning and mentorship and the interpersonal relationships that really lead to so much of what we do.

And I think that's a core aspect of our focus is how do you get that right balance and ensure that you're providing the experiences that make people want to be a part of.

Alex, one last question. What would you regard as the three indispensable initiatives for driving transformation at New York?

I'd say one is the key effort that I've already alluded to, which is modernizing. The core of the company, I'd say monitorization broadly is an ongoing thing, of course, but really taking that big step forward and modernizing some of our core legacy administration platforms and compensation platforms.

Alex Cook: That's really critical. That's something that will set us up for. The decades to come and enable us to develop and deliver and maintain and service the kinds of insurance services and investment services that can work together really effectively to meet client's needs. And in the absence of that, we're going to continue to be restricted with, how, nimbly we're able to do that.

So that really is a key focus for us is that, modernizing the core. Another is the transition to the cloud. And that's something that we're already well along that journey, but there's a lot more to go. And that's a transformation that many companies have been going through and that's something that we're going through as well.

And getting that ability to ensure that we have. Ready access to the data that's needed to support a modern enterprise. And that's for both operating platforms, as well as to enable decision-making and insights and enable all the data science applications that I was speaking to before. I'd say a third.

key dimension for us is ensuring that we've got the right, cyber security capabilities. That's a very important focus area for any enterprise today. And that's very much bound up with our broader, data strategy that data strategy, data protection, cybersecurity overlay is critical.

Alex Cook: For any company, but especially one our size ensuring that we've got our policy and errors in our, our agents, our employees in a safe space, in today's world.

It would be hard to find a more authoritative speaker on strategy than Alex Cook, given his career experience and the range of his responsibilities. I found myself reflecting on his reference to the innovator's dilemma, where the habits of success can leave a company defenseless to technology disruptors.

That's not the case at New York life, which strikes a carefully calibrated balance between the tried and true and the innovate. Alex provides many examples, but we might look to New York life's exploration of a range of technologies, including artificial intelligence that make buying life insurance easier and faster all while affirming the agent and advisor roles, along with the company's core values.

Thank you for joining us for the life accelerated podcast. For more relevant content, to help you achieve digital transformation. Visit microsoft.com/life accelerated.


Get new episodes directly in your inbox

Don't miss out on powerful insights from some of the top executives in life insurance. Sign up and get notified whenever a new episode comes out.

Have a question for us?

Contact Us!