'You can't have 20 No. 1 priorities': How Aflac's CIO cut down IT project delivery times
When Julia Davis joined Aflac as SVP and CIO in 2013, it took the insurance company's IT organization 18 months to deliver projects and it struggled with manual processes, according Davis, speaking at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. At the time, the IT department had 20 No. 1 priorities, which sharply impacted its ability to deliver projects in a timely fashion.
"You can't have 20 No. 1 priorities and expect to deliver in a timely fashion. You have to have focus," Davis said. Working with the CEO to eliminate 19 priorities, Davis and the IT organization were able to turn attention toward quickly paying claims, working to automate a manual process and reduce the insurance claims process to "one day pay."
Able to focus on one key project, the Aflac IT department completed the project in 5.5 months, including for the first time automatic direct deposit, rather than having insurance agents hand over paper check to policy holders, according to Davis.
The successful project helped illustrate IT's product and what its output could be, earning the department leverage with the business to help bolster future transformation efforts.
Identifying the roadblocks
Located in Columbus, Georgia, more than an hour outside Atlanta, one of the main IT obstacles Aflac faces is the talent gap. Though the organization has reshaped IT's reputation, working to modernize and eliminate manual processes, the insurance company struggled to recruit at the same level as companies in Silicon Valley.
Understanding talent can't remain stagnant, Davis built new recruiting processes, building up college programs and feeder systems to recruit talent directly into Aflac.
So new people are tempted to join organizations, IT leaders have to ensure businesses are not mired in dated processes. She also made concerted efforts to get staff members attending external trainings and conferences to learn how to run IT like a business.
There's also something to be said for the isolation outside of Silicon Valley contributing to leisurely rates of modernization. In a slower-paced work environment, it is easier for departments to become complacent with processes and employees to eagerly accept the status quo.
Bringing in change agents
It is often difficult for CIOs and other IT decision makers to identify shortcomings from inside their department. That is why new CIOs are often brought in as change agents, to determine where an IT department can improve to help contribute to the businesses' bottom line.
When Davis was brought into Aflac, she was tasked with rethinking IT's processes, making sharp improvements to output and productivity.
That's not to say every legacy IT department needs a new CIO just to modernize. After all, there's already enough CIO turnover, with CIOs remaining in their roles for an average of 4.3 years, whereas other C-suite executives remain in their roles for more than 5 years. Instead, CIOs need to rethink spending methodologies across IT because manual processes and dated technology can cost businesses both time and money.
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