CDIO Rich Gilbert Drives C-Suite Collaboration At Aflac

IT has become an integral part of growth strategies for the leading insurer.

It’s a new era for companies across all industries, according to Rich Gilbert, senior vice president and chief digital and information officer at Columbus, Georgia-based Aflac, the largest provider of supplemental insurance in the United States. Digital transformation affects every aspect of business, and getting it right is critical to growth.

As a result, the role of the information chief has transformed as well. Today’s CIOs need to help drive tech throughout organizations—including the C-Suite. Gilbert talked with StrategicCIO360 about how change is occurring at Aflac—both for the company and the tech department—what he sees going forward and why companies shouldn’t always look to new tech for answers.

What is the CIO’s role in supporting new business models and leading digital transformation?

CIOs and CDIOs today are becoming increasingly involved in business strategy as companies look toward digital capabilities to enable business growth. In my current role as chief digital information officer, I oversee both the digital strategy and traditional IT activities. Driving both is advantageous because it allows for a single vision, faster execution and forward momentum toward outcomes. This is an emerging shift in mindset from managing traditional IT activities to one that centers on enabling the business to be responsive to change, which is a strategic imperative for the digital services team I lead at Aflac.

The most important consideration CIOs and CDIOs are tasked with is setting the vision, or the “why” behind the direction to take for the company’s digital transformation efforts. This begins with assessing the company’s needs and building a path for the organization. You need a clear understanding of not just where you are now, but where the company will be in six months, a year, in five years and beyond. Most importantly, this vision has to be something people can believe in, relate to and understand in the context of their role, the company and the market you are in.

True digital transformation—which must be steeped throughout the whole organization—is the biggest challenge CIOs take on today, requiring strong collaboration not just within the technology department, but also the rest of the C-suite and enterprise. I worked with leaders across the company to develop our One Digital Aflac vision and operating model, which is all about customer centricity, driving value quickly and generating results without disrupting the core business.

To build that vision, we had to analyze and understand how what we do connects back to the customer and influences their experience. In 2019, we started with a vision: to use digital to make it easier for customers to buy, for our distribution team to sell and for our employees to work at Aflac. We went from whiteboard to boardroom in three months with this vision because it was simple and it resonated. It was something our entire leadership team and company could rally behind with an understanding of the why that was bigger than any of us and how we can all contribute to the vision.

Now, with results behind us, our strategy is evolving, as digital plays an even bigger role in Aflac’s success by enabling us to achieve growth, retention and efficiency goals. Today, I’m focused on how digital drives business by enabling us to grow revenue and become a low-cost provider where experience drives value.

What is the CIO’s role in assessing risk and cybersecurity?

In today’s business environment, it’s a well-known fact that a data breach or loss of company data doesn’t just present a financial risk, but also a reputational risk and a potential erosion in customer trust, among other adverse impacts. That means it’s got to be on the priority list for every CIO.

Thoroughly assessing risk and cybersecurity must be embedded into all digital transformation and traditional IT efforts. CIOs should be carefully aligned with their CISO counterpart. At Aflac, I work closely with our global chief security officer Tim Callahan to ensure information security, business continuity and disaster recovery functions are in place companywide, that our teams are working together to assess new solutions, and capabilities do not put the company or our customers at risk.

What is the role of the CIO in using technology to support broad business objectives?

Digital capabilities have and will continue to change our world, influence consumer expectations and drive business. Companies like Blockbuster, Blackberry and Kodak are cautionary tales of major corporations that failed to respond to market changes and innovate. And while it may be easy to assume only traditional consumer brands need to stay innovative, at Aflac, we realize that it’s just as important to continuously disrupt ourselves in order to remain competitive in an ever-evolving world.

As CDIO, I’m constantly thinking through how digital can drive business and make it easier for customers to buy, for our distribution team to sell and for our employees to work. I’ve found that oftentimes it’s not necessarily about implementing new technology, but adapting technologies and concepts from other industries to drive creative solutions and bring innovative digital capabilities to Aflac. Altogether, this supports our business growth objectives and helps us fulfill our promise to be there for our customers when it matters most.

We knew that for digital to drive business, we had to build customer-centricity into our operating model. We restructured our organization from a technology-focused team structure to one aligned by business services, reflecting the way we run our business. We also transitioned our technology delivery engine from a waterfall approach to agile, taking large complex programs and breaking them into components that deliver value quickly. And to ensure we maintained our customer-centric mindset, we embedded product owners from the business into our technology delivery teams to prioritize capabilities that best serve our customers’ needs. 

A critical part of driving business is making it as easy as possible for customers to buy Aflac products. Our customers now have the ability to learn about our products and buy directly online. We have also launched new self-service options via our new mobile app to easily submit a claim and track payment status.

A significant part of Aflac’s business model consists of our sales force and broker partners. To help our distribution team drive sales, we’ve made it easier to sell Aflac products and serve our customers. Our Agent Hub app allows our independent sales agents to be more productive on the go with mobile tools to assist with customer claims, sales performance data and tracking progress toward their goals with notifications and alerts. Knowing a superior digital experience drives sales, we’ve also delivered a completely new benefits enrollment platform with an improved user experience, new shopping cart functionality and mobile capabilities.

Lastly, we’ve made it easier for our employees to deliver Aflac’s promise with a brand-new contact center platform that provides our customer care specialists with dashboards and capabilities that allow them to handle customer requests more efficiently. We’ve also optimized our back-office operations with automation and robotics that streamline claims processing by consolidating key information for faster decisions and freeing our employees to focus on care for our customers.

A successful digital transformation requires thinking through your operating model and whether it is designed to support the business and the outcomes aligned to your vision. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve the results mentioned had we not overhauled our operating model and delivery engine for customer centricity, speed and partnership with our business.

Why does this matter? CIOs are in a position to use digital to drive business outcomes, and it requires thought leadership, innovation, and consistent delivery and accountability for results. Optimizing customer experience while delivering solutions that increase efficiency and sales growth will make your efforts a win-win.

How has the role of the CIO changed?

Previously, CIOs primarily oversaw internal IT operations and rip-and-replace programs, and digital transformation efforts were viewed as a standard time-based activity like standing up a new data center or migrating to a new platform. However, digital disruptors like the iPhone have changed the game across industries, driving customer expectations. As a result, their responsibilities have expanded to include creating an optimal digital customer experience and new revenue streams. Today, digital transformation has become a business imperative, putting CIOs in a position to reinvent and reimagine the way their company does business and serves customers. 

The role of CIOs has changed and will continue to change due to the economic ripple effect of Covid-19. CIOs’ importance and influence have been amplified, as the pandemic crisis impacted business needs while the workforce transitioned from commercial offices to remote home offices. Organizations were faced with accelerating their efforts in creating a digital-first environment with minimal disruption to the business.

However, many are realizing that digital transformation is not about technology for technology’s sake, nor is it about merely checking the box and moving on. Rather, digital transformation is about solving a business problem and enabling the company to quickly respond to changes in the market—be it changing consumer preferences or operating disruptions like the pandemic. CIOs are expected to look toward the future to explore, assess and test innovative solutions that can help solve complex problems or address opportunities. In the end, successful CIOs are using technology to deliver business outcomes in an increasingly digital world.

How do you think the role of the CIO will continue to change?

I recently heard that all companies are now tech companies. This is largely due to the best-in-class customer service experience provided by Amazon. Customers, employees and partners alike should have a seamless, easy and secure digital experience when conducting business transactions with the company.

I think CIOs will be expected to continue to create and execute on the technology vision as well as lead fundamental changes in business strategy. While I’ve said a lot about the business strategy part of that, from a technology perspective, there are many opportunities to drive transformation and optimize business processes with data, analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Together, these technologies have tremendous potential for what I am calling enterprise intelligent automation. The result will help organizations fine-tune their processes and provide new, innovative capabilities to deliver value quickly, reduce manual tasks and errors, and allow employees to focus on higher-value activities that will help take companies across industries to the next level.

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