Innovation PODs Launch Solutions

Man and woman talking in an office.

For a few dozen data scientists, engineers and analytics experts at Travelers, TGIF means more than the universal ending to the work week. Friday afternoons also mean time spent collaborating in “Innovation PODs.”

This dedicated time each Friday has been drawing teams together to explore leading-edge technologies, approaches and data sources that could benefit Travelers’ Claim operations. The data engineers and scientists use the time to immerse themselves in new programming languages, dive deep into machine learning and AI algorithms or explore the emerging capabilities of graphical neural networks.

Ultimately, many of the ideas that take hold in the Innovation PODs lead to new products and services, says Kevin Mahoney, Vice President of Data Science in Travelers’ Claim organization. “In addition to the cutting-edge tech, the thought was to get people together in small groups who’d never worked with each other before to spark creativity and new ideas,” says the 15-year company veteran, who started the weekly tradition.

The Innovation POD tradition is “a great example of investing innovation time for future business gains,” says Mojgan Lefebvre, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology & Operations Officer at Travelers. “Over the past couple of years, these groups within Claim Business Intelligence & Analytics (CBIA) and Claim Technology are making tremendous progress on our innovation agenda in unique and customer-focused ways.”

From using graphical neural networks to improve fraud detection rates, to applying image recognition software to property claims, the list of successful business applications that started with those Friday gatherings continues to grow. Since 2019, for example, Travelers has won two national CIO 100 awards and two Gartner “Eye on Innovation” awards for projects that started out as exploratory POD topics.

“Our business leaders have seen the clear value of our POD time,” says Kim Farrell, Assistant Vice President of Analytics and Research within the Claim organization, reflecting on the practice that started eight years ago. “It’s where we learned Python and Spark for the first time, and where we learned how to build machine learning and deep learning models. We try to link everything we do in POD to solve business problems.”

Mahoney originally chose Friday afternoons as the ideal time to set aside for innovation work, reasoning that fewer scheduled meetings on everyone’s calendars would make it more sustainable over time. Also, he adds with a laugh: “If you’re ranking the most productive hours of a work week, you wouldn’t choose Friday afternoons!” But that was exactly the point. “When we bring the Innovation PODs together, they’re shifting gears to work on something new.”

The PODs have been around for so long now, nobody quite remembers whether ‘POD’ was ever an acronym or initials for a specific phrase, but the name and importance of the effort certainly stuck. 

Despite the pandemic disruptions of the past year, the work of the PODs moved to remote group gatherings. While everyone misses the face-to-face camaraderie (and the shared pizzas), the group did what they’ve always done: shifted gears and tried something new. 

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