Open Mind, Open Doors

In a complacent market, CEO Joseph Iannicelli is finding new opportunities for Banyan Work Health Solutions through creative thinking

Joseph Iannicelli held up a pen once during a presentation. He asked his audience what he was holding but received only puzzled looks. Obviously it was a writing utensil, but that wasn’t the answer he was seeking. It took some time, but those in the room began to open their minds.

“A weapon.”

“A doorstop.”

“A hairpin.”

“A coffee stirrer.”

“A garden tool to punch seed holes.”

5 Questions
with Joseph Iannicelli


1. How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
Each of us is capable of incredible feats of creativity. I encourage people to bring back their inner child. Have you ever observed children at their best? They have a natural sense of curiosity and creativity. How many times have we given a child a toy and they play with it in every manner except how they are “supposed to,” quite often disregarding the toy and playing with the box?

2. How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
A lot for some, not much for most. We still manufacture time to think creatively, which is absurd to me. How can you schedule a time and place and “instruct” people to be creative? Creativity occurs anytime, anywhere, most often when you least expect it—stuck in traffic, bored in a meeting, in line at the airport.

3. How do you cultivate innovation within your workforce?
I play a game called Find the Fault. I’ll have an idea; if someone can’t find the fault, it’s a good idea. If there’s something holding it up that cannot be overcome, then we stop it.  

4. What defines an innovative company in the 21st century?
A lot of companies focus on incremental improvement because it’s a safe bet: Make something smaller, lighter, thinner. Change the sugar content of a beverage. Add a new application to software. This is fine, but companies that will succeed the most are those that are courageous enough to make revolutionary change that is not dictated by the threat of extinction or bankruptcy.

5. What does innovation mean to your company?
Everything. I look at innovation as a fresh way of doing things on a consistent basis. We live by Bill Gates’s philosophy of “Innovate or die.” 

In the end, the audience determined more than 30 different uses for a common pen.

Though it was just an exercise, Iannicelli’s demonstration showed the potential of thinking differently—the lynchpin of Banyan Work Health Solutions’ strategy to maintain a competitive edge in an industry that for too long has suffered from the status quo.

Banyan is a provider of disability and return-to-work solutions, and Iannicelli is its CEO. The rehabilitation sector has changed in the past 20 years, and it’s continuing to shift in such a way that “there’s a real appetite for a new approach to the disability-management market,” he says.

A trend toward demutualization and subsequent mergers and acquisitions among benefits suppliers in the late 1990s consolidated the number of companies in the industry by nearly 30 percent. And American companies, many of them specialty disability carriers with operations in Canada, left the market, and that void was never filled. So, today, the industry is more or less dominated by three large suppliers that provide for more than two-thirds of the group-insurance market, with many smaller players vying for the remaining third. These conditions have left the industry’s top suppliers without an incentive to innovate or improve.

“There is no sense of urgency to drive genuine innovation in our industry,” Iannicelli says. “Unless a new player comes in and says, ‘I’m going to disrupt the market with something new and creative that will affect your business,’ there won’t be.”

Banyan is seizing that opportunity in two ways. The first is its approach to case management. While most suppliers take a medical approach to case management—relying heavily on diagnoses to determine disability and a plan for resolution—Banyan was founded on a functional approach. “We look to see what functions our customers’ employees can do as opposed to those they can’t do,” Iannicelli says.

The second, which is bred from the first, is the way the company ends up looking for creative solutions that transcend industries. For instance, Iannicelli is currently looking to partner with a manufacturer and distributor of products for the stay-at-home elderly. He sees the potential to use these same products to improve workplace or home-office accessibility for disabled employees. “That could be the beginning of a return-to-work strategy,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to see from 100,000 feet how some of these seemingly unrelated solutions can be put together to create something innovative.”

Banyan’s founder, Maria Vandenhurk, started the company with the belief that there was a better way to handle rehabilitation, and that commitment to improvement paved the way for the firm’s present technological prowess.

Innovation in the industry has been enterprise-focused, so Banyan followed suit, developing two software solutions that manage and help prevent disability cases with increased efficiency. However, the firm differentiated its programs by recognizing that they could be customer-facing.

Caseflopro, adjudication software that uses a sophisticated algorithm to assign case managers based on their past work and skill set, was originally just an organizational solution, but it now functions as a case-information database to which managers can refer when developing their return-to-work plans. And Atworkpro, which Iannicelli says was originally a front-end bolt-on for Caseflopro, tracks all unplanned absences, short-term and long-term disability claims, and workers’ compensation claims. Casual absenteeism costs Canadian employers more than $16 billion annually. Atworkpro helps prevent this with an easy-to-use and comprehensive absenteeism tracking system that flags potential disability claims by catching casual absences early.

On the surface, Atworkpro can seem like a tracker of sick-day abuse, and it certainly has that potential, but Iannicelli stresses that its real benefit to clients is its ability to call attention to those employees—sometimes a company’s best—who may be struggling due to extenuating circumstances or a disability but who may not seek help or show obvious indicators.

As Banyan continues to aspire to improve workers’ comp, Iannicelli says, it will need to continue to challenge the notions of what is possible and what works. Some improvements will require radical innovation, but others are just waiting to be realized.

“A lot of the solutions are already there,” Iannicelli says. “We’re putting them together in ways people never thought of, and that’s what makes them powerful.”