Embracing the future, respecting the past: Great-West Lifeco’s digital transformation

Embracing the future, respecting the past: Great-West Lifeco’s digital transformation

Great-West Lifeco’s Canadian companies are undergoing one of the most significant transformations in their 100-plus year history. As they look to the...

For any organization, of any size, undergoing an extensive digital transformation is no small feat.

For Great West Lifeco Inc. (Lifeco) and its Canadian-based companies, which have been providing insurance, benefit and financial solutions to Canadians for more than a century, the challenge centres upon maintaining a promise the company has made since it was founded.

“As a company, we've long offered a promise to our customers – to improve their well-being, to keep their personal information safe, and to be there when they need us most,” says Philip Armstrong, Executive Vice-President and Global Chief Information Officer (CIO). “Our digital transformation is all about building upon this promise. We’re strengthening how we protect customer data and investing in new digital solutions that will provide convenient service for our customers anytime, anywhere.”

As Global CIO, Armstrong’s role is crucial in the delivery of this transformation. Lifeco has carefully selected technology partners like Cisco, SAP, IBM, Microsoft, FireEye, and IPSoft to completely transform its entire technology ecosystem. Armstrong feels strongly that the role of the Global CIO has also significantly evolved alongside this journey.

“Traditionally, I think that companies first created a business strategy and then looked at how technology could underpin and support that strategy,” he says. “Today, with technology moving so fast, technology is a key driver in determining business strategy. The CIO is now expected to actively partner in the business transformation process, from design to execution.”

Lifeco is a global provider of financial services, comprised of a number of companies that operate predominantly in Canada, Europe, and the US. Armstrong is tasked with overseeing a number of regional CIOs together with motivated technologists located around the globe.

“We have approximately 3,400 technologists within our core technology teams,” he says, “and we’ve recently aligned them closely with our different business groups; this blurs the lines between what would traditionally be a technical or a business role. This alignment helps us be more agile and outcome based. It allows our business to better leverage technology to meet the future needs of our customers.”

The changing face of technology

Technology has always been Armstrong’s first passion. He began his career working on the frontlines of technology in England in 1979, before the personal computer arrived on people’s desks. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the CIO of a leading Toronto based financial services company at the age of 29. Since then, his technology career has provided him opportunities to visit and work in 48 different countries.  

Armstrong has seen first-hand how technology has evolved over several decades and how each new wave of advancement has influenced business models. He argues that one of the most significant changes has been how we now perceive technology’s potential.

“In the early days, I watched as technical solutions was positioned with rampant overselling, which led to unrealistically high expectations and the inevitable disappointment of broken promises,” he says. “Today’s technology platforms are so powerful that their potential is often ahead of what most companies need. There’s never been a more exciting time to work in the technology field and turn that potential into a reality.”

Armstrong joined Lifeco as Global CIO in 2016 to advance the company in how they could leverage technology across their group of companies.

“It’s about changing how we apply technology to provide modern timely services for our customers,” he says. “We believe strongly in putting the customer at the centre of what we do, and that translates into the decisions that we make around what technologies and services we intend to roll out.”

Lifeco’s Canadian companies have served Canadians for more than a century, and Armstrong says their transformation is really about positioning them for the future.

“We’re embracing the future, while respecting our past. We have a proud heritage of helping Canadian with services and expert financial advice. We’re looking to use the power of technology to find new ways to improve the financial, physical and mental well-being of our customers.”

Evolving customer needs

Armstrong believes that while customer expectations of technology have risen, many aspects of the financial services industry have been slow to respond.

“The modern customer wants immediate access to their financial information augmented with timely advice that empowers them to make better decisions,” says Armstrong. “Advice-based insurance and wealth management business models within Canada have approached technology cautiously, fearing it would provide an unnecessary barrier that gets in the way of what is a very personal relationship between financial planners, advisors and the customer.”

But according to Armstrong, Lifeco isn’t shying away from this challenge, and instead, views it as a strategic opportunity.

“We’re listening very closely to both our customers and financial advisors. We see emerging technology as an opportunity to significantly enhance these personal relationships that are so important to our overall success.”

The company is listening intently to its customers, identifying their pain points and building a technology ecosystem that can rapidly respond and adapt to the customers’ wants and needs.

“It’s a modernization process that starts from front to back,” says Armstrong. “You have to examine how your customers are interacting with you, and many of ours do so through intermediaries. We have to equip financial advisors and our distributors with digital solutions that enable them to be more productive, more informed, and more connected, so they can provide exceptional service to their customers.”

“Where it makes sense, we’re helping advisors and clients by providing customers with new digital self-service capabilities. Within our own business operations, process automation, machine learning, data analytics and AI technologies are helping to streamline and reduce business processing costs, enhance responsiveness, and increase employee productivity.”

Rising customer expectations and the industry’s competitive landscape are also reshaping the way Lifeco approaches systems and solutions delivery.

“Our technology development process was much more inward looking, today it’s a more organic process that has to be closely aligned with what customers want, need and expect. ”

Armstrong points to how Agile development methodologies and ways of working are becoming the preferred way at Lifeco, bringing together cross-functional, full-stack teams that are able to deliver quickly. To him, this is often the biggest cultural change.

“It’s no longer good enough to work on requirements, develop code, wait six months, and then present the result – the traditional waterfall approach. There needs to be shorter, sharper sprints, allowing us to reduce execution risk and respond to opportunities in the marketplace as they happen.”

The art of the possible

Armstrong emphasized the importance of aligning Lifeco’s strategic business plan and technology vision.

“I consider myself to be living in the future, my job is to envision what could be and then partner with my business colleagues to define the art of the possible,” he says. “We have a clear business vision, but marrying that vision with emerging technologies often drives new possibilities that weren’t previously considered.”

“Working this way requires a major cultural change, operating model re-alignments and a more flexible organization structure. This has been a major part of our transformation journey. It’s vitally important to know where you’re going and having everyone aligned towards that goal. That congruence of vision, action and technology is how you start to move from where you are today, to your destination in the future.”

A transformational journey

For Lifeco’s Canadian companies this latest transformation represents one of the biggest turning points in their illustrious history. They’re working to reinvent the organization’s core technologies and business processes, many of which have been successfully operated for decades.

With every major component of technology now in a state of flux, being replaced, modernized, moved to the cloud, or retired; surely this creates a higher level of operational risk?

“I think it’s far riskier not to change,” says Armstrong. “Indeed, we are acutely aware of how well these transformation activities and risks need to be managed, but we’re also aware of our industry’s future direction. We know its advancement will be largely fuelled by technology innovation. We’re not going to wait for the industry to change, we want to be proactive and drive this change.”

“I don’t know of a larger technology-based transformation happening within financial services across Canada right now. Our digital and business transformation will differentiate our company and position us to remain competitive going forward.”

A vital part of Lifeco’s strategy has been to establish strong partnerships with leading global technology providers including Cisco, Microsoft, IBM and SAP. Through these strategic partnerships, Lifeco has been able to leverage their partners’ R&D capacity and gain access to some of technology’s biggest and brightest talent pools.

“We work closely with our large technology partners, spending time to understand their solutions and roadmaps, and then applying suites of integrated technology to business challenges and opportunities. This avoids spending most of our time trying to integrate disparate technology solutions, forcing them to work together.”

“For us, this is an efficient model where we leverage the expertise offered by these large technology partners, and they've been fantastic to work with.”

The buzz of technological change

Armstrong acknowledges that this year, the financial services technology industry will be awash with technology buzzwords and jargon, coupled with an unprecedented amount of disruption and transformation.

Artificial intelligence, conversational AI, machine learning, cloud, bots, blockchain, and big data analytics, are all major trends across the industry. What is Lifeco doing with these technologies to ensure that they are truly advancing their business priorities, and not falling for the marketing hype?

“A large part of my job is to position cloud, artificial intelligence, conversational AI, machine learning and process automation technologies within our organization in a practical way that delivers real value,” says Armstrong.  “We have lofty ambitions and strive to leverage these technologies to serve more customers, across the channel of their choice, using any device, at any time, and in the language of their choice.”

Armstrong says that the only way to incrementally deliver towards this goal is to invest in process automation, digital technologies and artificial intelligence. Lifeco has already started to integrate robotic process automation into its operational work environment.

Another important strategy is the introduction and integration of IPSoft’s conversational AI platform, which Lifeco is piloting. IPSoft offers one of the most comprehensive conversational AI platforms on the market today with the ability to communicate with customers in multiple languages, across multiple channels, while evolving and adapting from each customer interaction.  

Armstrong also believes that AI will be critical in helping financial services companies, like Lifeco, extract value from large datasets.

“I think you'll start to see artificial intelligence being applied in situations where the quantity of data is so vast that it overwhelms the human capabilities of our analysts,” he says. “In these cases, AI will empower our employees to spot trends, solve problems, and make decisions faster.”

Empowering Employees

Lifeco prides itself on placing the customer at the centre of their strategic decisions, but Armstrong is quick to call out that it is employees who bring this promise to life each and every day.

 “Customers are at the centre of what we do, but our employees are the foundation of our success,” says Armstrong. “We’re working to create a truly digital workplace that supports enhanced mobility, connectivity, productivity and collaboration across the company. We’re looking to empower our employees with simple yet powerful tools, so they can focus on our customers and provide the excellent service that sets us apart.”

Armstrong concedes that simply deploying technology for employees isn’t always enough, often, this is when the real work begins. 

“We structure agreements with our strategic partners where they directly assist with the implementation of the technologies they provide. They help to educate our employees, facilitate training and co-own our adoption goals. The productivity gains we’re seeking will only come from intelligent usage and full adoption of the new tools.”

Modernizing the employee experience extends further as evidenced by Lifeco’s new physical office designs. Some of Lifeco’s iconic buildings have stood for nearly a century and are a testament to the company’s heritage. In what Armstrong described as a metaphor for Lifeco’s transformation, these buildings are also undergoing a significant transformation. Inside you see fresh, modern office interiors that offer flexible, open and collaborative work environments. Armstrong points to improved collaboration and team responsiveness as a direct result of the new environments and wireless enabled workspaces.

“Enhancing both our physical and digital work environments brings our global workforce together, allowing us to collaborate more effectively and deliver faster,” he says. “New cloud-based collaboration tools and digitally-enabled meeting rooms connect people from different offices and across the globe, as if they’re working side-by-side.”

Respecting the past, embracing the future

Technological transformation will never truly end; it will remain a continuously evolving journey. Armstrong believes that for Lifeco, 2017 was a foundational year, and 2018 will yield more visible results. 

“In 2017, we brought in what I’d like to describe as core technology building blocks,” he says. “Now that we have those in place, we can start arranging and connecting them in new and exciting ways that have never been done before. That’s when our customers and employees will start to see a bit of a quantum leap. We can’t wait to start sharing the fruits of our digital transformation efforts with Canadians.”

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