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Connecting with others in a digital world

By Michel St-Germain, FCIA, CIA President

The actuarial community encompasses professionals with shared skills and interests, a commonality that undoubtedly helps us become better actuaries. But today, we must rethink our networking methods.

I had an excellent career as a pension plan consultant working for a large consulting firm. After a few years learning the ropes, my supervisors impressed upon me that to reach my full potential, I needed to expand my network and my reach outside my Montreal office. Back then I would receive invitations by snail mail (in an envelope, no less!) to participate in conferences and working groups with actuarial colleagues as well as other professionals in both Canada and abroad. At the same time, I did volunteer work for the CIA and SOA, enabling me to exchange ideas with many great actuaries.

In attending a host of conferences throughout my career, I learned a great deal about actuarial theories and client challenges. Equally important, though, were the relationships I developed along the way. They helped me appreciate the various ways actuaries can approach a problem and recommend solutions, as well as the similarities and differences among actuarial practitioners in different parts of the world.

That being said, the era of in-person conferences has passed and won’t be coming back. We need to reimagine how to take advantage of this incredibly rich network of ours. While the pandemic brought our in-person activities to a screeching halt, I believe that COVID-19 merely accelerated an emerging trend founded on technological advances and the interests of new generations of actuaries.

A number of advantages, but a serious downside too

All around us, conferences are now being held using new technologies. The best example, no doubt, can be found in the US election campaign, which recently dispensed with in-person party conventions and speeches to throngs of partisans. Fortunately, the candidate debates are still scheduled to take place, allowing voters to see the two candidates interact in person, just like in the good old days.

Over and above the safety benefits in the midst of a pandemic, these new approaches seem to offer numerous advantages:

  • The days of flights and hotel stays are gone, saving us both time and money.
  • Less organizing is needed, allowing organizers to focus more on the content and event frequency.
  • Because the format is flexible, we can receive the live feed or tune in later to a recording at our convenience.

There is a downside, though. We do not yet know how to replace the value added of human interactions at these events. Those informal chats we used to have in the hallways during coffee breaks and various receptions contributed to our professional development. Our youngest colleagues are deprived of the chance to rub shoulders with their seasoned counterparts, to witness firsthand how they conduct themselves when it comes to, for example, rising to ask a question in front of a gathering.

In the wake of the pandemic, the CIA had to react quickly. In-person meetings scheduled by the Board and councils had to be replaced by telephone conferences and Zoom sessions. Similarly, the annual conference – originally scheduled for June – will be held online in the fall.

We have also had to cancel outreach meetings with public policy officials, actuarial clubs, and employers of actuaries. These sessions are aimed at informing public policy makers on questions within our areas of expertise and sizing up the needs of our members. We will be rescheduling these meetings for the fall, but on a virtual basis. This will save us time, but will they prove as rewarding as they would have been in person? Time will tell.

Reinventing CPD in the COVID-19 era

You belong to a profession known for its integrity and desire to protect the public interest, and you continue to have access to continuing professional development (CPD) to better serve your clients and employers. To that end, the Committee on Continuing Education and Head Office staff are working hard to organize the upcoming virtual events. Soon you will see the fruits of their labour: greater efficiency and flexibility, and a larger number of events.

A few months ago, the COVID-19 virtual town halls showed us how actuaries in different areas of practice were dealing with the challenges posed by the pandemic. These virtual forums gave us an early look at this brave new virtual world. Here’s an update on our events:

act20, the CIA’s annual conference, was scheduled for June but will instead be held virtually over two weeks in November. While this might seem to have been a simple decision, renegotiating large meeting contracts posed a ripple affect on contracts for the next few years. Our Head Office staff acted quickly to renegotiate these contracts with minimal financial impact. 

The Professionalism Workshops and Practice Education Course, which are both key educational events in the qualification processes for ACIA and FCIA, were also deferred. As a result, we reinvented and reengineered our entire education and professional development offerings which roll out this fall. 

The first virtual professionalism course was delivered on August 27 to 100 candidates – twice the number normally seen in person. The event was a success thanks to the flexibility and ingenuity shown by our facilitators and staff. The virtual PEC will take place mid-September, offering the same content at the track-specific level, with plenary sessions for all candidates delivered by guest keynote speakers and our own talented members.

On the professional development front, the Virtual Actuarial Evidence Seminar has rolled out as a series of webcasts on the last Thursday of each month, as will the Virtual Appointed Actuary Seminar, running from September 21 to October 1.

For the many actuaries who lack access to the same opportunities as those working for large corporations, the continuing education offered by the CIA is a lifeline. We operate in a competitive environment, so we must ensure that our content is relevant. We must also consider whether additional sessions exploring emerging fields and aimed at upgrading our soft skills should be offered. In our case, necessity is the mother of (re)invention, and our CPD services now have a wonderful opportunity to innovate.

I hope we succeed in offering new actuaries all the benefits of working in our actuarial community and the opportunity to connect with their peers. This certainly helped me during my career. We just have to find ways for our young actuaries to benefit from these networking opportunities as well.

What we have learned from all of this is that we are able to pivot quickly and reinvent ourselves. We have learned that technology is an invaluable tool for bringing us together and, at the same time, not infallible. We have learned that our community of members and staff are supportive, creative, and patient. The virtual events held recently by the CIA leave me confident that we can up our game and successfully navigate this digital transition.

This article originally appeared in the CIA (e)Bulletin.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and does not represent an official statement of the CIA.

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