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Customer-facing app brings comic relief to managing 401(k)s

To serve customers better in the digital economy, companies must move beyond the traditional supply chains that have powered their businesses and plug into "digital ecosystems." That was one of the big themes at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium and an idea that symposium speaker Gary Scholten understands well.

As CIO and executive vice president at Principal Financial Group, Scholten is helping architect the financial services company's digital transformation, launching new customer-facing applications, exploiting big data and using Agile methodologies to help IT respond more quickly to business needs.

Here, he talks with SearchCIO senior news writer Nicole Laskowski about a new customer-facing initiative that employs an untraditional partner group -- comedians -- to help customers take better control of their 401(k) plans.  

What is an example of key technology investment you've made to transition to digital business?

Gary Scholten: Yes, so one of the key challenges that society has is people are not saving enough for retirement. It's gone from a situation where their companies or their government did it for them, to now their having to do it themselves. We looked at that challenge at the same time as we were asking, 'How can we interact more effectively with the participants in their company's 401(k) plan?' We brought those together using digital technologies, or something called My Virtual Coach, where we're engaging an ecosystem partner that specializes in helping people to make very hard decisions, taking them down the decision path.

It involves using scripts that were developed by comedians in engaging ways to help people ... understand their decisions and make the decisions that are in their best interest.
Gary ScholtenCIO, Principal Financial Group

It involves using scripts that were developed by comedians in engaging ways to help people get through and do it in a very simple way, so that they can understand their decisions and make the decisions that are in their best interest. That was something that we couldn't have done in the pre-digital age, but it's a way to engage those participants. We developed a relationship with them, and we get data about them so that we can serve them better.

How does this digital engagement project work?

Scholten: When employees are signing up for their 401(k) benefits, they go into our website or on the app. Then they get led through the series of decisions they need to make. It's done in a very informal way -- that's kind of where the comedians come in to make sure that it's not an intimidating process [because] it can be an intimidating process: 'I'm making financial decisions, and I don't feel equipped to do it. So this helps guide me through the path so I make the best decisions for me.'

It's interesting that you chose a customer-facing technology as the example that you gave. When you think about digital priorities for the IT department, are those customer-facing projects key?

Scholten: I think all of the levels are important; data is certainly an important piece of it. But with customers, you're not only trying to help them and serve their needs, but also, as they go through the process, you get data about them that you can then use to make sure that the next transaction is a positive one for them. So that's a place to start, in that it feeds the data that we use on other fronts.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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Conference Coverage

2016 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: The digital CIO has arrived

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How important are customer-facing apps to your company's ability to compete in the digital economy?
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This is an awesome approach. Complicated decisions are always more enjoyable, and also memorable, when they're communicated in a funny and/or interesting way. 
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