The Salon Effect: What the Salons of the French Enlightenment Can Teach the Insurance Industry

The impact of salons was felt even as their necessity was lost at the start of the French Revolution. Their lessons persist, especially around idea generation, critique, and community.

(A reading in the salon of Madame Geoffrin in 1755, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier. Chateau de Malmasion, France.)

“Thanks to our sullen resistance to innovation, thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we still bear the stamp of our forefathers.” —Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Burke, 1790: 64)

The twenty first century has been challenging for the insurance industry. Disruption has replaced the status quo as new technologies emerge and customer expectations shift. The industry is forced to change with the times or risk losing the one thing it can’t afford to lose: relevance in peoples’ lives.

While it is difficult to know how to proceed, historical parallels can provide some guidance. The French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the salons that fueled it questioned existing notions and paved a new way forward for European civilization. The open discourse of salons allowed the French Enlightenment to take shape, and they offer valuable lessons for modern insurers.

Denis Diderot, prominent "philosophe" of the French Enlightenment.

Denis Diderot, prominent “philosophe” of the French Enlightenment.

  • Democratization of Information: The salons of the Enlightenment demonstrated that it’s difficult to be truly innovative if information is restricted. Insurance companies are not known for unfiltered use of information across many constituencies, especially employees (boiler plate mission statements and strategic plans aside). This is ironic as employees are often the very people that insurers prod to be more innovative. Insurers need to be brutally self-critical and candidly share strengths and weaknesses with the people they expect to enable change.
  • Engagement of new stakeholders with fresh perspectives: It took many iterations to put aside entrenched European societal behaviors. The key was the fact the aristocratic women who hosted the salons ensured that everybody had an opportunity to speak without interruption. These women considered civility and decorum a point of personal pride, and subsequently created a model for civil discourse among diverse groups who otherwise had no reason to listen to each other. Similarly, insurance companies need to embrace diverse perspectives.
  • Cross-pollination of ideas: Existing power structures (the Church, the nobility, the monarchy) feared new ideas for the risk and dangers they brought. As Edmund Burke noted, the French Revolution was “a revolution of innovations.” The same is true today of many insurers who worry that change will inevitably create problems. The free exchange of ideas and perspectives in salons was critical to the new social, political, and cultural foundations of eighteenth-century France and Europe, and it is a model for today’s insurance companies.
  • Innovation through experimentation: It was expected that salon participants either argue the merits of an idea or point out weaknesses in its logic. This was not done to embarrass or personally criticize an idea’s author, but rather to create an open discourse. Not unlike modern incubators, they instilled a willingness to share perspectives, test different outcomes, and potentially fail. This same lesson applies to innovation efforts at modern insurance companies. Many insurance companies have created innovation centers, however few have produced innovative or interesting ideas. More often than not, the most impactful ideas come from outside the industry. Insurers often limit the circulation of ideas, and like the salons of the 18th century, they should instead promote unrestricted thinking and critique.

The impact of salons  was felt even as their necessity was lost at the start of the French Revolution. Their lessons persist, especially around idea generation, critique, and community. As disruption continues and new challenges confront insurers, an eye toward the past can help organizations move forward.

Frank Petersmark // Frank Petersmark, PhD, is associate VP of Research & Consulting at research and advisory firm Novarica. Petersmark formerly served as CIO at Amerisure, and as the CIO advocate at X by 2, a software architecture firm focused on the insurance industry.

Comments (2)

  1. Mr. Petersmark’s article presents an insightful set of lessons from the salons of France that can be applied to a mature industry like insurance. It is critical to mean what you say about enabling innovation among your people to the point of truly stoking the forces of change vs. participating in ‘innovation theater’. Good to see my old colleague Mr. Hittel’s response on here as well.

  2. Nice to see an article in an insurance pub that references something so outside the usual insurance frames of relevance. But the call to be open to new ideas — indeed, to facilitate employees’ “civil discourse” rather than simply “prod” them to innovate — is especially relevant. One small but good example of how this might be accomplished: A few years I crafted a social media policy at my company that called on employees to explicitly act on social media, both inside and outside, as the brand evangelists they implicitly are: Use the platforms to spread your ideas rather than whisper them at the water cooler. (Sad to say, there is no evidence I can see that either my former company or any other allows, let alone enables, their employees such latitude.)
    But let’s be clear about one thing: All this openness and innovation of the Salons did in fact help bring down the Ancien Regime! So today’s top execs are quite right to be wary of the innovation they preach but do not allow employees to practice. Yeah, let’s be creative, let’s be innovative, but let’s not push things so far too fast: I’ve got a few years to go, you know, and I really don’t want to see everything tumbling down around me. Ideas can have consequences, you know…

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