Despite concerns to the contrary, the industry is making strong moves towards the advancement of technical skills through the advent of underwriting academies. Marcus Alcock reports

Despite the commoditisation of some areas of insurance in recent years, particularly on the personal lines side of things, the overriding reality for the insurance industry is that technical knowledge and skills remain core assets for any decent company.

Despite concerns from some quarters that the industry has not been doing enough in recent years to invest in technical training, the situation is actually quite different if you look at the UK's biggest players.

After all, particularly in this increasingly litigious age, it's in their best interests to ensure that staff are kept abreast of developments and can offer customers a professional service.

Of course, one of the most important areas for insurers when it comes to keeping up to speed with developments and having a thorough knowledge of underwriting is liability, so often the bane of many a decent company given the woes and cash-sapping actions that have arisen as a result of many a liability policy.

One only has to think of asbestos, environmental liability or, more recently, US-related directors' and officers' (D&O) policies to understand just how tricky a class this can be. But as far as Bob Donovan, technical manager for liability at Norwich Union (NU), is concerned, it's not simply a matter of teaching underwriters about the technical aspects of liability insurance - the training is much wider.

"As a company we have placed a very heavy emphasis on training and development. But we do skills, full stop," he says. "Personally,

I wouldn't confine skills to just technical skills, as that's only one part of it. So the underwriting academy covers both technical skills and what I would describe as the 'soft' side of things, such as negotiation skills and the like. And in a soft market there can be as much store there as on the technical side, so we do blend the two quite evenly."

In practical terms, he says the onus is on team managers, each of whom will provide a learning programme for underwriters, which will include both technical and non-technical skills.

NU also has a programme available to staff called 'Icon', which is the abbreviated form of 'instilling confidence'. "We're not saying it's a training programme for people to go through, as sometimes it can be just a refresher or it's something they feel is timely," he explains. "So we have a range of material available in a range of formats, from CDs to PowerPoint presentations, which are made available, and branches can use whatever suits them."

"We also have a library, and that library is being added to as we speak," he continues, adding that it's a "constantly evolving situation" because legislation is always being updated and the company needs to ensure that its training programmes reflect any legislative changes that may have taken place.

Aligning studies
Another insurer that also claims to invest seriously in technical skills training is Allianz Cornhill, which set up its underwriting academy in 2000 to promote and develop technical excellence among the company's underwriting population, according to

Katy Ross, who manages the academy.Ross says the academy offers a wide range of technical modules across all classes of business with the level of technical difficulty ranging from foundation level for entry-level underwriters to specialist subjects for experienced underwriters and managers. As such, she adds, underwriters work through the Academy programme throughout their careers with Allianz Cornhill in order to enhance their technical underwriting knowledge and skills as well as achieving their own personal development goals.

"Our underwriters are also able to align their academy studies with their CII studies," she stresses, "as the underwriting academy was the first in-house training programme to achieve CII accreditation in 2003."

She outlines the importance of teaching skills in helping to promote the commercial success of the company: "Allianz Cornhill places great emphasis on the development of all its staff through a comprehensive range of technical, commercial and leadership development programmes and many new and prospective employees cite the strength of our commitment to learning and development as a key factor in their decision to apply for a job with us. Our technical training focus is therefore a key component of this overall offering and our continued technical excellence is crucial to the ongoing success of our business."

She says that the underwriting academy focuses on the full range of technical underwriting knowledge and skills, rather than one or two specific technical areas. "We also encourage our staff to work towards their CII advanced diploma in order to enhance their technical and industry knowledge, and we have remained at the top of the industry in terms of CII performance for the last four years," she adds. "We also support non-underwriting staff through the attainment of marketing, accounting and engineering qualifications, to give just a few examples."

In much the same way that NU sees an underwriter's skills as much broader than just technical skills, she also says that the company is currently in the process of broadening the academy offering to include a suite of 'trading skills' modules to complement its existing technical skills requirements. As such, the aim is to "enhance our underwriters' skill sets by building on their communication, negotiation, relationship and account management skills in order to further develop their trading confidence".

Clearly it seems that some of the UK's biggest companies are certainly investing in skills training as part of the core development of their business, bus is the industry as a whole really doing enough when it comes to investing in training technical knowledge?

From Allianz Cornhill's point of view, there is still room for improvement. "I think the industry could do more to support the development of technical skills training," declares Ross. "There has been a great deal of rhetoric from within the industry regarding the importance of improving its technical base, citing an increase in professional qualification take-up as a key factor. However, the industry as a whole needs to match this rhetoric with real actions by encouraging and supporting the development of its people through the attainment of technical qualifications."

But are other companies really listening? IT