Insuring digital success: SulAmérica’s tech transformation
CIO Cristiano Barbieri outlines how the Brazilian insurance giant is reshaping its business with customer-centric cloud services and a reskilled IT team.
Brazil’s largest independent insurance company is driving digital transformation by putting cloud IT and analytics at its heart, with the goal of enriching the way it interacts with its customers and ensuring it can respond rapidly to the new dynamics of the insurance market.
SulAmérica, which provides a full range of insurance and investment services to its 7 million clients, has long recognized IT as critical to the efficient execution of its core processes — everything from raising a quote for life insurance to the authorization of repairs to a vehicle after an accident. However, the past four years have seen a significant acceleration and change in the way in which the company deploys its IT budget to respond to the digital needs of its client base, staff of 5,000 and a field sales force of 30,000 independent representatives.
“We are seeing a massive behavioral change in the way our clients and workforce use technology, and my main challenge is to take advantage of digital innovation to transform their experience when dealing with us,” says Cristiano Barbieri, CIO at SulAmérica. “That means we have embarked on a whole series of projects and actions, as well as staff reskilling, to transform our technology capacity to meet those demands and drive large-scale innovation.”
In a market where technology advances are so fast and frequent, SulAmérica believes that changing the fundamentals of how the team operates is directly linked to its ability to identify, absorb and introduce innovation to the organization. “I am changing the way the IT department works to be able to listen to customers, take the market’s temperature and do projects at speed,” Barbieri says.
“My main challenge is not big data or AI or any other specific technology. If I am able to introduce a customer-focused mentality and the capability to run small projects fast, it doesn’t matter where the technology goes: we will be ready for anything,” he adds.
Ramping up cloud
A foundation for much of that change is the largest single implementation of Salesforce.com’s cloud-based customer relationship management services in South America, now in year three of a four-year roll out.
Over that period SulAmérica has replaced some 20 internally developed, siloed legacy systems with integrated Salesforce-based services. More than 2,000 staff now use the platform to interact with its millions of clients across multiple channels, using the 15-plus major applications it has developed so far using four core Salesforce modules:
• Service Cloud for integrated management of multichannel client requests through a single customer view
• Sales Cloud to manage business relationships with corporate insurance customers
• The development platform Force.com to enable the building of applications: for example, to track the discharging of patients from hospitals and their move into home care
• Community Cloud for creating portals for suppliers, service providers and business partners, with the aim of improving processes such as direct purchasing of materials.
Barbieri sees all this as just part of an evolution. “If we are to deliver a better experience, we need to have the ability to respond to any customer and sales query rapidly, and the CRM products we are rolling out are crucial to delivering on that goal,” he says. In that sense, the Salesforce deployment does not have a specific end date, he says.
In addition to Salesforce products, SulAmérica has progressively increased its use of cloud elsewhere, for public cloud services and office applications and communications. “There is no looking back in terms of our adoption of off-premise services,” says Barbieri. “We will continue to move forward with our multi-cloud approach.”
But not everything will make it to the cloud. The company also has a fully virtualized, VMware-based infrastructure with 1,200 servers. While there are no plans to grow that base, the CIO says he expects to be maintaining that “for a long time.”
Boosting data analytics capabilities is also part of SulAmérica’s digital transformation. Decision-making based on business intelligence data is nothing new to the company. However, the toolset required to speed up access to data as well as accuracy of insights needed to evolve.
“Almost everything we do is based on analytics, cross-referencing of information and so on. Within fraud analysis, for example, we need high data processing power to understand in real time whether any given occurrence is abuse-related,” the CIO points out.
“Analytics is a very important aspect of our strategy and we have been investigating artificial and cognitive intelligence tools internally. We are still getting to grips with the technology, but it is absolutely clear that using it will be fundamental to our business,” he adds.
Technology is clearly not the only part of SulAmérica’s digital transformation journey. According to Barbieri, even though the move to a digitally led business has proved compelling, there are significant change management issues to be addressed, not least of all evolving the skill base.
Barbieri says the key here has been full and open communications within the IT organization. “In a situation of radical change, you have to give and take feedback, and to emphasize the advantages of the changes. We have a strong IT team of 500; many have been with us for a long time,” Barbieri says. “Like me, they are observing the changes in the market and how the company needs to be part of that. And we have the opportunity to be change agents for the business.”
The in-house knowledge base is being evolve rather than overhauled, he says, through a segmented model that starts with small projects and grows as success is proven. “We weren’t going to announce we’re changing all our systems and expect 500 people to adjust to that,” he says. “With the Salesforce project, we started with one project and today we have delivered more than 15. Such new approaches are so much better that any natural resistance to change is quickly being overcome.
Nurturing digital talent
The key to getting access to the new skills SulAmérica needs is training, Barbieri believes. “The Jedi-type of IT professional that I am after is in really short supply — the kind of techie who, before taking standard instructions asks the right questions about the nature of the problem we aim to solve, who goes straight to the source in order to understand what the real pain points are,” the CIO points out.
“It is still an exception in Brazil to find professionals who know how to employ added-value engineering in fast cycles, who know digital innovation firsthand,” he adds.
Over the past 12 months SulAmérica has trained more than 100 IT team members with a view to grabbing the opportunities presented by digital. And despite competition for such talent from technology companies, start-ups and other insurers, “investing in staff makes the company an even more attractive employer and, consequently, retention levels are very good,” says Barbieri.
Neither is buy-in from the company’s top management an issue; they regard technology as a core aspect of SulAmérica’s market competitiveness, says Barbieri. But there are still hearts and minds to win over.
“Engaging people in the transformation across the organization will be my main challenge as we progress. Cultural change is not only required within IT,” says Barbieri. “The advantages of digital transformation may seem really clear, but if you ask 10 people what it means to them, you will most likely get 10 different answers. So change is not simple.”