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Aflac CIO: IT flexibility enables enterprise innovation

One of the challenges Julia Davis faced when she came on as senior vice president and CIO at Aflac Inc. in 2013 was getting rid of the "command-and-control" IT that still flourished at the supplemental insurance company. The traditional approach to information technology wasn't working for the business, which gave the department low marks for customer satisfaction (try 39%), according to Davis.

"We were so insulated and used to being in our own little world and doing things the way we've been doing them for the past 30 years, we didn't have a good idea of what good was," she said during a panel discussion at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. So she began introducing an Agile framework -- an approach that supports IT flexibility and its ability to respond to the business's requests faster.

SearchCIO caught up with Davis at the conference in Cambridge, Mass., where she talked about how IT flexibility at Aflac has turned into a big enabler of innovation -- within IT and outside of it. Below are excerpts from the interview with Davis; click on the player to hear the interview in its entirety.

What will the IT organization of the future look like?

Julia Davis: If you had asked me what we would look like four years ago, when I first just joined Aflac, to where we are today, I don't think I would've envisioned that this would be the current structure. The fact is, I also need to keep changing. Part of our organization, it's not fixed in stone to say this is exactly how it has to work and how it's going to operate. I think we have to organize more around more nimble teams, we have to be more focused on execution and delivery for our customers and for the market. How do we deliver the customer experience in a way that they're used to?

That's going to take change and a mind shift because a lot of our focus has been internal. It hasn't necessarily been external. But the reality is that's what the customers are expecting; they want to work with us the way they work with Amazon. And this insurance company that's used to just dealing with agents is now finding that they've got a lot more of the end policyholder wanting to engage with us directly. And how do we communicate and coordinate with that? That's going to drive a lot of how we're organized around what the customer experience is, not necessarily what our own internal experiences are.

What surprised you about the four-year long reorganization of Aflac IT?

Davis: I didn't think we would move this quickly to Agile. I thought it was going to take me a lot longer. And to have 50% of the organization running under an Agile framework, I thought being where I was, they weren't going to embrace it as quickly as they did, and I'd have a lot more of 'show me' first before I could get that buy-in. But I've been getting incredible buy-in from the business, as well as from the IT organization, that that's moved along our process a lot faster.

How does IT innovation fit into the Aflac culture?

Davis: Innovation isn't just an IT thing. It's got to come throughout the company; it's got to be a part of the whole culture of the company. Great ideas can come from anywhere, and we have to be prepared to adapt and respond to that. That's part of what IT has to change to make sure they have that flexibility that when great ideas come in, we can either execute on our own ideas or execute on ideas from others in the business.

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