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Data is the Backbone of Digital Transformation

Ajayan Narayanan

Ajayan Narayanan recently joined Sun Life ASC India as Vice President and Head of Digital Business and Technology Solutions as part of the company’s plan to accelerate its digital transformation agenda and deliver enhanced client value to its parent company and internal stakeholders. Enterprise World IT caught up with him to get more insights into the company’s game plan with its digital transformation strategy. Excerpts from the conversation.

How do you see the digital transformation? 

Digital transformation started way back in the 1940s when the 1st Z3 computer came into existence. We didn’t call it digital, but it was more of digitalization. In the last decade we have seen Internet technologies really getting more intertwined with our lives both personally and professionally. We saw early part of this decade focusing more on telecommunications technologies, which I think then became a very strong foundation for our evolution.

I think change management itself is a challenge because digital transformation is change at scale in terms of the process, culture, talent and this can be really overwhelming sometimes.

Ajayan Narayanan, Vice President and Head of Digital Business and Technology Solutions, Sun Life ASC India

If you look at the last decade, very few organizations saw this opportunity in the early part of the decade and to be honest with you, I was fortunate to be part of one of them in mid 90s and we had an online banking platform on both mobile and web at that point in time which significantly kind of increased the leadership of the bank in that region and its customer base. 

As I mentioned, we did not call it a digital transformation then, but this was indeed a major paradigm shift as to how we saw technology being adopted to create a very engaging customer experience and new business models.  So today we are also seeing a tectonic shift in how the finance sector is transforming so basic banking functions like let’s say for taking a loan, or doing an investment or transferring money. I have gone through major changes today and I don’t know when was the last time you and I visited the branch. 

Now if I look at these last six to seven years in particular, we are seeing fintechs and insurtech. 

Since I’m from the insurance industry, fintechs and insurtechs are really disrupting the sector with changes in customer experience, ushering changes in regulatory environments and providing  stiff competition to traditional finance companies forcing them to constantly innovate and be relevant.

Now, if you really look at the advancement in the technology platforms like Cloud and data, I see huge opportunities for organizations to really transform themselves to stay relevant, and take leadership positions. I think data is still the backbone of digital transformation. 

I believe we are living in a data decade. Everything we do personally and professionally generate massive amounts of data and if you harness this rightly it creates huge opportunities.  So, I think there’s a lot of things happening in the in the digital world, and which is very exciting. 

“Digital transformation started way back in the 1940s. We didn’t call it digital, but it was more of digitalization.”

How are stakeholder expectations changing with regards to the role of the IT department?

I see digital transformation is becoming a real business imperative across all industries, and if I look at the total spend of digital transformation, I think it is estimated to be around close to US$ 2.4 trillion.

Now if you look at the last decades, as an IT organization we were always viewed more like a cost center which should constantly be either reduce and most of the IT leaders reported into the finance function. But in the last few years the CEOs and the Board has recognized the value of the CIO can bring into the company to act, think and act more like a digital company. Let’s say in the recent past, CIOs played a very significant role in enabling the industries to function in a hybrid mode. T he boards are expecting CIOs to play a very key role in revenue generation, instead of focusing only on the bottom line there is an expectation to focus on the revenue generation. 

How could they partner with other business leaders by understanding business and revenue goals. Second, CIOs are expected to be play a more integrated role as a technology and a business leader. It essentially means that CIOs now have to go deep and develop better understanding of the businesses they support. Third, I feel they are becoming more public, they are becoming the face of the company to talk to their shareholders and others about the company’s digital transformation journey. 

They are also expected to understand other organisations better—so for example, human resources finance they can help drive the transformation there. The most interesting thing and which is an exciting thing is I am seeing a number of CIOs today, being part of the board, which is a very significant shift and good for the organization. 

“I think it is a judicious blend of talent from external market as well as internal mobility that helps us to develop the capabilities we require to support our digital aspirations.”

So how are the changing expectations affecting the CIO’s relationship with the Board and other CXOs. What are some of the challenges they are facing? 

I think digital transformation can be really challenging for many organizations, and if you look at the statistics on digital transformation failures, they’re significant. So in my view, the companies will have to really reimagine the current set up and look at up scaling the teams and at different ways of engaging with customers and all this will require significant amount of planning, meticulous execution and a significant commitment from the leadership.

To be to be specific, I think there are three areas which CIOs need to look at. Many IT professionals in the last two years have reimagined their career path. The demand for digital transformation has gone up across the industry, therefore there’s dearth of skills around Cloud and data analytics and data management. Second, I think is very important to manage cyber security, particularly around ransomware, advanced persistent threads have only gone up. With the war in Ukraine now companies are expecting more of this to happen, and I think therefore cyber security is becoming a major focus for IT leaders.

I think change management itself is a challenge because this is going to be a change at scale. A change in terms of the process, culture, talent and this can be really overwhelming sometimes. I think the need for IT is to really constantly re-evaluate the focus and balance the people and results.

What is the kind of growth plan in India insurance company? 

Sun life is indeed a global company, were based out of Canada. India operations started almost 16 years and we’ve been evolving right the way we see our growth. Growing both in terms of accountability, head count and overall impact we make the Sunlight, we call it, multiplying the value from this location right on the technology front.  We’re focusing on increasing our depth and senior roles in software engineering architecture, SRE, DevOps, Cloud, Data API, and UI. Today we kind of look at our organization as a microcosm of Sun Life, with a representation of all major functions. For the last six years we have seen growth of CAGR 12% and we are optimistic to see a similar growth in the next two to three years as well. 

What are your plans now? How would you think IT can assist the growth plans? 

At Sun Life our technology strategy and business strategy are about really thinking and acting like a digital company and everything we do has to keep our customers at the center.  At first we want to meet and evolve our client-centric digital ambitions so we really have a big focus on developing our talent internally while attracting the talent that’s can help us achieve the some of these capabilities. So as we go through the digital transformation, we want to increase our focus on building digital capabilities, modern engineering practices, developing deep subject matter expertise. For example, we have the highest number of LOMA certified people and we got recognition for the eight year so these are some of the areas we are focusing in terms of enabling growth. 

Modern day technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics ensure competitive advantage and the banking sector is leveraging it extensively to automate so many things, so what are your thoughts around that? 

We are increasingly using these technologies to advance our digital strategy. We have made some inroads, especially in terms of using conversational AI using voice analysis in our call centers really helping our actuarial functions to take intelligent decisions. We are not going to stop there and are continuously looking at opportunities to see how we apply these technologies to accelerate our transformation. 

What is your plan around retaining or re skilling or engaging fresh talents from outside? 

Managing and expanding the talent is one of the biggest challenges for companies across the globe and at Sun Life we kind of use a twin approach of talent acquisition and talent development. We need to have the competent experts at senior levels to guide the workforce. So we will bring more seniority in those places. We are also investing in reskilling, up skilling, high potential internal talent via specific project assignment, stretch assignment and domain certification. For example; Loma technology or certification.  So the way I look at it is the judicious blend of talent from external market as well as internal mobility helps us develop the right capability we require to support our digital aspirations. 

We are also focusing on what we call as an early careers program, which is essentially focusing on fresher and campus talent to come into the organization. That’s one of the ways we are trying to build this organization, but we have a very highly engaged team that works on cutting-edge technology, so we keeping them motivated by providing them with challenging assignments. 

A company like Sun life is known to have a huge customer focus, always keeping the customer in the center. How are you engaging with customers? 

We use the phrase customer delight so the client expectations of this new world are really dynamic, evolving and is being defined by innovative and engaging experience they see outside. When they come to our touch point, they would expect a similar experience. So our objective is very clear we want to deliver a simple, intuitive and confidence-building digital experience that attract clients to our platform, increase the satisfaction and really creates moments of delight and encourages them to take more actions to improves their financial security, live healthier and more fulfilling lives, which is our core purpose. 

So we are looking for opportunities to delight the customer at every interval, and as an insurance industry you would understand the number of engagements an insurance company has with the customer is far less so we want to look at that and leverage every opportunity. 

What kind of advice do you have for the peer group? 

As I mentioned, as IT leaders some of the challenges include dealing with cyber security, change management and talent. These are common problems and sharing notes with each other is really helpful as I don’t think any one person has a as a single solution to any of this. But I think conversations like this help to learn from the ecosystem. I don’t think I know everything as a person and it is the community that can solve things together.

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