Employee benefit brokers should make the commitment to themselves to treat learning about HR technology the same way they’d dive into educating themselves on a new line of insurance coverage, a panel of experts said last week at EBA’s Workplace Benefits Summit.

The benefits industry is undergoing a technology revolution, with the field set for exponential growth starting now, explained Mike Smith, director of exchange solutions at the world's largest privately owned, independent insurance brokerage firm Lockton, in Boston.

Speaking at the conference in Boca Raton, Fla., Smith explained that for many years there was no disruption or growth. But not now. “Artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics,” he said, “[a broker] can see [new technology] as disruptive stress or … an opportunity.”

“A benefits professional [needs to] better understand the macro environment they are going through and we [advisers] have a tremendous opportunity to help our clients understand the technology,” he added.

Three types of tech advisers
Right now, not all brokers are ready for this disruption. Utilizing research from a survey that is yet to be released from Maestro Health and EBA’s parent company, SourceMedia, brokers were grouped into three main categories, explained Carrie Marquardt, senior director, channel development at HR tech provider Maestro in Chicago:

1) Analog consultants are those brokers who are less comfortable around technology and not highly informed. They often have a long-standing book of business and long-term clients. This represented 25% of surveyed brokers.

2) Receptive next generation brokers are opportunistic around technology but not informed or up to speed about the various types of HR technology and providers. This group also represented 25% of surveyed brokers.

3) Automation leaders represented half of those surveyed and believe technology is critical to their success. They know if they don’t help or advice clients with their technology needs, someone else will, Marquardt said.

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Employers who are not up to speed themselves are looking to their broker for help and will go someone else if they can’t get that help, Smith said. “It’s a massively confusing market,” he added.

That confusion comes mainly as a result of all the new players. Chicago-based HR tech consultancy Gruppo Marcucci, now part of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., estimates $25 billion has been invested in HR technology over the past five years.

Smith adds that in the year 2000 to start a tech company someone had to invest $5 million of seed money in technology alone, money invested before any code was written or any product was sold. In 2007, that cost was $50,000 and today it is about $5,000 because of open source technologies.

“If you are not talking to clients about taking advantage of some of these new technologies, somebody else is,” he said. “You have an opportunity and almost an obligation to help clients with that opportunity.”

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