Social business tools have accelerated new products and field response time at one multinational insurance company.

How do you respond to markets that didn’t even exist a couple of years ago? That was one challenge facing Chubb Corp., a $13.6 billion, 130-year-old specialty insurer. Chubb underwrites risk in lots of fast-evolving niche markets, like clean tech, life sciences and medical devices.

In the mid-2000s, Chubb found itself struggling to move as fast as the markets it was insuring. Its innovations had typically come in a linear fashion driven by the home office in New York. But much of the company's expertise was in other offices, and it wanted a way to supplement its traditional innovation process.

“We have to evolve our product service offerings and more important, our understanding of risk, at the same pace” as the market, says Jon Bidwell, Chubb’s chief innovation officer.

Risk is a special challenge, since it gets assessed in part through data such as actuarial tables. When there is no well-established market, an insurer like Chubb has to look to the expertise of its employees. Chubb is decentralized, with 10,200 employees in 27 countries, and expertise scattered across those offices. Chubb's management wanted to bring new ideas to the surface across its 120 offices.

So in 2008, Chubb created an innovation unit and tapped Bidwell, a 30-year veteran of the company who was then managing director of strategic development, to run it. It was a small group — besides Bidwell, it included Gerry Myers, vice president of global innovation, and an administrative assistant. Their jobs were to figure out how to tap the experts inside Chubb and create new products faster.

Bidwell and his tiny team developed what they call a social business approach to creating new ideas. With the help of Chubb’s IT department and some external vendors, they built a social business platform that they could drop onto the computers of organizations and groups within the company. The platform gives the insurer a way to connect people regarding ideas, and also a repository for discussion about those ideas, creating a kind of expert knowledge management system.

Chubb has used its social business platform to run almost 50 internal innovation events, which it dubs Motivate + Drive + Deliver. These events bring together as many as 10,000 people, including independent brokers and agents, to get ideas as well as their views on potential products.

To fund ideas that come out of the innovation events, Chubb created an internal venture capital group, which will provide up to $1 million in seed funding for ideas it likes. So far, three of the ideas it has invested in have become companies with $10 million or more in business.

One of these ventures, WorldCert, helps life sciences clients organize clinical trials. Prior to the creation of WorldCert, units in individual countries would help clients with trials, recreating the process from scratch each time. Now, there is a single Chubb office that handles clinical trials.

Chubb has been able to democratize innovation on both the product and process side. “People suddenly find they have a voice, have an identity and can be acknowledged for their input,” says Myers. “We’ve discovered that the best ideas, or idea fragments, come from people closest to the customer and broker, usually inversely related to title. We’re finding that sales representatives or office clerks are probably in the best position to know where the pain points are of people you’re trying to sell policies to.”

The innovation events can also be used to create process efficiencies and improve customer service. By creating a more social business platform, Chubb has remade itself from a company that had operations in many countries to a truly global corporation.