Feature Story

Inside Sun Life Financial’s Digital Transformation

Creating new digital services requires new ways of working. Chief Digital Technology Officer Alice Thomas offers a detailed look at her company’s journey. (Part one of two.)

Sun Life Financial is all-in when it comes to devoting resources to developing new digital services. The Toronto-based financial services firm was early to smartphone apps, recently rolled out a voice-activated digital assistant for Google Home, worked to sharpen its analytics capabilities to offer clients more personalized recommendations.

Alice Thomas, Sun Life’s chief digital technology officer, says these efforts and more to come are part of the company’s digital transformation that has been ongoing for about five years. Behind those customer-facing developments are a number of cultural and organizational changes, all aimed at increasing experimentation, agility, and speed to market.

Here, Thomas explains how Sun Life’s adoption of agile development techniques and the creation of an innovation studio help deliver new services — and also demand careful tending of the company’s culture.

Connected Futures: Sun Life has been working on a digital transformation for some time. Where are you on that journey?

Alice Thomas: Sun Life’s been an industry leader in the digital space. We were first in our industry with a mobile app that would make it easier for clients to submit claims, see their holdings, interact with Sun Life in a seamless way. We’ve seen great uptake from our clients using mobile apps, starting from a time when the iPhone was just coming out.

So, our journey has been all about quickly adopting new technologies, but finding ways that we can be relevant for our business partners, so it’s not just technology for the sake of technology.

I’ll give you a good example of that. Our digital benefits assistant program is something that we launched a few years back, and that was all around making investments in big data and analytics, making investments in predictive modeling to try to get to know our customers and clients more personally. Providing nudges and insights to clients, sort of like Netflix.

We use machine learning algorithms to offer you advice at the right time. If you’re having a baby, we let you know about some services and products that would be useful for you. If you’re retiring, we let you know how you can connect with Sun Life advisor to get more information.

Now you know AI is getting a lot of buzz. When we started doing machine learning, I don’t think we thought about it other than it is being really useful to our clients. But we’ve actually started doing some work on the voice channel, which is becoming a formidable channel in the marketplace. More and more Google searches are done with voice on your phones, hands free. (Editor's note: Read more about voice in Machines, Talking Their Way into the Workplace.)

Since our customers speak both English and French, we chose Google Home because it is bilingual, and we launched a new service for them called provider search. If you’re looking for a massage therapist, if you’re looking for a chiropractor, we will find one closest to you based on your GPS, leveraging the features of the phone.

That’s our goal – when our business partners come to us and say, this is something really interesting for our clients, we will have already done experimentation.

We launched provider search on the mobile app and our website last year, and we found that our clients really use it. They love to be given the opportunity to rate those therapists. And so, we’ve got over four million ratings to date. It’s almost like a little TripAdvisor, when you think about it. We introduced that same feature on Google Home because we know this is the feature that will be helpful, especially when you’re traveling.

Our journey is really taking us to continue to invest in digital technologies, technologies that support big data, analytics, cloud — looking at really improving on the client experience across all channels. How would you describe your digital transformation strategy?

It’s a three-pillar strategy.

One is digitizing current business models, enabling key moments along the client journey: claim submission online, or looking at your current balances, or clicking to call an agent while you’re in the mobile app, so you’re authenticated, and it’s an easy conversation.

The second theme is around using digital to be proactive, which is what we talked about with the digital benefits assistant program: predictive models and machine learning.

The third one is building out new digital models, like our new health and wellness offering launched last year. It’s called Digital Health Solutions. This is a purely digital business model that is all about looking at how we can provide wellness solutions for our clients, something that didn’t have as a formal unit and is a brand new business model for Sun Life.

What have you learned along the way?

Our innovation program has been a catalyst for us in terms of our experimentation. I’m calling it experimentation on purpose. We have teams in India, Montreal, Toronto, and Waterloo, and we have team members everywhere. The Ignite Studio is an innovation studio that we formally opened last September – downtown Toronto, beautiful location.

The inspiration for the Ignite Studio on the 10th floor came, frankly, from a visit to Silicon Valley a couple years ago, that we did with our CEO Dean Connor and a number of his senior executive team. We got a lot of inspiration from companies like Facebook, and LinkedIn, and others. And we also looked at our startup companies here in Toronto, because we want to try to be more of a tech company.

We wanted to understand: What do they do differently?

The space is important. The Ignite Studio is about 16,000 square feet, designed and built purposefully to support innovations. When you come here, you see it’s very open – whiteboards everywhere, a very informal collaborative environment, desks go up and down so that you can sit or stand. Lots of screens everywhere, so you can collaborate globally with your team, we have video facilities. And we actually face Lake Ontario, so it’s beautiful to even look at. Great for recruiting.

Within the innovation team, we will experiment with new technologies. So, the Google Home application that I mentioned earlier came out of the lab. We were hearing about voice technology gaining speed in the market, so we thought, let’s put a team on it to start experimenting and playing with it. And we picked a use case that we thought would be useful for our business partners, the provider search.

Part of that experimenting process was to bring in our business partners. They participated in bringing the voice of the customer into [the process].

We do design thinking here as well. We did a lot of testing with potential clients, starting with Sun Life employees who were also clients, to get a feel for — Would this actually be useful? Will anybody actually want to use this?

We did a lot of that type of analysis and testing. And before we went live, we did a soft launch quietly over the Christmas holidays. We didn’t advertise it. We wanted to see what the uptake is. And as the uptake started going, we realized, okay, this channel will take off. It’s still nascent, it’s still early days.We partnered with our business partners, and we agreed together that we were ready to go live.

Just opening up that channel is creating a lot of interest from clients. So, now we’re doing some work on Amazon’s Alexa as well, even though Amazon’s not bilingual. We’re hoping it’ll be bilingual soon, which is important for our clients. And we’ve got a team starting to look ahead in terms of the Apple HomePod that’s also coming out very soon in Canada. We want to stay ahead.

That’s our goal – to always be two steps ahead, so that when our business partners come to us and say, this is something really interesting for our clients, we will have already done experimentation.

You’re talking about design thinking, agile development, working as partners, customer testing. It sounds like a great template for you to apply in many areas in your business. How did this template emerge?

Well, we have been doing informal agile development, if you want to call it that, without the formal methodology. But last year, we actually embarked on formal training for not only the IT teams, but also our business partner because this a combined effort. So, everybody in IT and the business partners that work with us on agile projects all got training.

And we have this space which was beautiful. So, we had a space, we had formal training, we have coaches and scrum masters, so these are new roles as well in Sun Life, that we had to work with our human resources team to define.

Agile is a change for the company – a good change, by the way. But it’s a journey. I would say we’re year one into our agile transformation journey as well.

And you would point to this voice-activated assistant as a model of how it can work well.

It’s a great example. I do feel that we had really earned the trust of our business partners. I think that’s important – where they could come and see what was going on in the lab. They could participate. It’s totally transparent when you’re in an agile delivery model, because they’re with you. They see what’s written on the wall. They see the backlog. They get to participate in the daily scrum meeting.

So, it’s a very transparent model, and I think it leads to really good collaboration across the organization.

How does that approach differ from work in the past?

In the past, we would have used more traditional waterfall development methodology. So, you write the requirements, then the business waits until you develop code, and then they come and see the final product. It’s a very different model. They may participate and collaborate on the requirements, but they don’t see output until it’s done, versus with agile, you’re seeing small sprints. You’re having MVPs – minimal viable products – that they can see every couple of weeks, and they can change their minds. They can say, I like it, I don’t like it. So, the final product is what we all agree to. So, there’s no surprises.

For you as a leader, what are you looking at in terms of making such challenging changes?

They are not simple.

Frankly, because we’re multi-location, these first agile projects do require people to co-locate. And Toronto’s a big city, so depending on where you live It could be challenging. So, we have been accommodating agile processes by having video facilities in different locations and asking people to come in maybe three days a week versus five days a week.

We also have a big team in India that just has gone through agile training, and we’re going to try to figure out how to do distributed agile. They’re hiring scrum masters, and they’re getting trained because we have a great team in India that we want to leverage as well. When you’re doing agile projects, business partners have to commit to time and funding. And you don’t know what the end product is because you’re developing it together.So, the challenges have been on co-location, on role definition, and how do I get measured because now I’m part of a big team? Those are some of the growing pains, because the roles are changing. And in a pure agile organization, some of these roles might mesh. A developer might do testing, and so the tester role, you kind of wonder how they feel about that.

The other big challenge is when you’re doing agile projects, your business partners have to commit to a certain period of time and funding. And you don’t know what the end product is because you’re developing it together, different from your typical SDLC [software development life cycle] where you kind of have a big business case, and governance, and lots of steering committees.

Well, with agile, there is really no steering committee anymore because the product owner and the scrum master work together. The product owner is often the business sponsor. They work together, and they are defining the product as they go. So, it’s a little bit different in the funding too.

I would imagine that there’s energy when one of your products gets some traction.

Oh, yeah. They’re so excited. They celebrate all the time. And I love watching them. The [teams] self-organize. They give themselves a name. They celebrate at every MVP. It’s a really interesting team building dynamic to watch. And it’s maybe not for everyone, but I think most people who are on agile projects love it.

And we’re not 100 percent agile yet, because we’re still on the journey, but agile is best suited for projects where you don’t really know the end outcome. You kind of know what you want a high level – and you’re willing to iterate as you go, which is suitable for a lot of digital projects.

Your work in agile is an important chapter in your transformation?

Absolutely. Prior to agile, we didn’t really have the fully documented approach. Agile is a very defined methodology, and I think it’s been really good for us because it’s helping us develop the products and solutions quicker. It’s much faster, and it’s adopted by the business faster. We get to do client testing. We get to get feedback, iterate with that feedback, so the end product always becomes exactly what an end client would want, which is beautiful.

The other journey we’re on right now is layering on DevOps because agile and DevOps go together. The DevOps journey is [in its] early days, and it’s all around trying to improve the developers’ productivity. The whole game here is speed to market, speed of delivery.

So, those are still early days for us, but because we’re a global organization, it has to permeate the entire organization to be very effective.

What are the top-line lessons you think about on this journey so far?

I’m always interested in doing things in a pilot mode, so MVP is the best way to do things. Try something, get a pilot going – and that’s exactly how we started the agile program.

We started with a small project. We made success out of that project. We celebrated success, and we shared the wins across the organization. You have to talk about the wins, both from a client perspective, from a business perspective, as well as from a human resource perspective. It’s a win, win, win. But to me, that is probably a very important lesson: Start small, and then accelerate the journey once you’ve got the win and invest properly on training.

This cannot be an IT journey. This has to be an organization-wide journey.