How Technology Leads Strategy

Tech is no longer just an enabler of company vision—it is part of its development, says Santhosh Keshavan, CIO of Voya Financial.
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Tech’s role has morphed dramatically in the past few years, particularly post-Covid, as customers and employees alike have become more comfortable with digital engagements.

Santhosh Keshavan, CIO of Voya Financial, a financial, retirement, investment and insurance company based in New York City, talked with StrategicCIO360 about how those changes have lifted the role of tech in companies, what tools customers want most and how to get tech teams to “think and create freely.”

Technology is a key enabler of business strategy. Do you believe technology should influence strategic direction as well? 

In my experience, business strategies are most successful when all stakeholders are at the table early and often, and when there is a mutual appreciation and expectation for open, candid conversation. Each business or functional area within a company has its own perspective and niche expertise. Only when they all come together with a shared vision and common understanding, will the company be poised to reach its greatest potential. 

Technology, for instance, has a great deal of insight to offer. Traditionally companies have looked at technology as an enabler of strategy, but the trend is shifting towards companies now using technology for the development of strategy. 

The most prominent example is data and data science capabilities. Data is emerging as a defining element in business strategy development and a key driver of strategic decisions. A holistic data management strategy, discipline and execution has quickly become the central driver of business growth and market differentiation. Companies are no longer looking at data as just an outcome of business transactions from which they can gain insight, they are now looking at data to identify consumer behavior, needs and expectations – and using that understanding to define future direction. 

Technology is now seen to play a dual role in both development and enablement of corporate strategy. On the front end, technology capabilities like data science, analytics, machine learning, natural language processing, etc., can provide the intelligence to formulate a more informed corporate strategy. On the back end, technology capabilities like cloud, API, digital, etc., can help to accelerate a company’s strategic execution. Companies that recognize technology as a driving force in both cases are more likely to secure a more prolific path forward.  

How would you describe the role technology plays in the customer experience today?

As with the development of strategy, technology plays a two-dimensional role in defining and delivering an industry-leading customer experience. 

First, one must excel at the basics. The priority is to ensure fundamentals are strong and consistent. This means always remaining focused on providing a high-performing, reliable and secure technology infrastructure for customers and employees. Being there—and being at your best—when customers want to engage is step one. If that fails, there will likely not be a step two.

The second is to continually strive to deliver innovative capabilities that help to differentiate your customer experience in the market. This means constantly ideating and innovating with the goal of taking customer solutions and experiences to the next level—striving to give the customer what they want even before they knew they wanted it. 

Technology is meant to complement the human emotion of a great customer experience by empowering it to be better, faster and more effective.  

What emerging technology capabilities are helping to improve customer experiences and how?

In today’s financial services environment improving customer experiences is all about improving holistic customer outcomes and that requires leading-edge data, digital and cloud capabilities. Investing in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, cloud, API and advanced data science and analytics will continue to be a key focus. 

We recognize that consumer expectation for greater integration and personalization is growing. A recent Voya survey found that seven in 10 employees (73%) are interested in guidance and support tools that would help them understand how much money to put aside for retirement, emergency savings and healthcare expenses. Employees want digital tools that help them make more informed—and comprehensive—benefits decisions.

The ability to use data to integrate and personalize digital experiences will continue to develop and improve well beyond 2022. With more companies moving to a public cloud environment, there will be greater opportunity to partner with fintechs and other data sources. This opens endless possibilities to integrate all sorts of data, such as spousal/partner benefits, elder care expenses, student loans, medical claims and more. The ability to bring data together to paint a holistic picture of household finances will lead to more personalized digital experiences. The ease of data integration to deliver digital personalization is one of the greatest opportunities in the financial services industry. 

Additionally, we know that digital engagements have increased exponentially as a result of Covid-19 and is the preferred way consumers wish to engage. This is why technology professionals are always focused on further enhancing the digital landscape. These days delivering a mobile-first digital app with access to personalized services and preferred outcomes is where companies must excel to be successful. 

People are always looking for the next great innovative technology capability, tool or app. What’s your view on innovation and how do you encourage an innovative mindset/culture within your team? 

I try to constantly instill the concept of innovation as basic problem solving. You have to start with a problem, or better said, a customer need, and then look at creative ways to fill that need. That’s where the technology tools and capabilities come into the picture. For the most part, innovation is not creating a new technology tool or capabilities, it is most often about bringing existing technologies together in a different way to solve a problem and/or fill a need.

Instilling an innovative culture comes down to creating an environment based on trust. Your team needs to know they can trust you (and each other) to brainstorm openly, suggest ideas, experiment and take risks—and even fail, without consequence. Creating an environment of trust breaks down barriers and opens one’s mindset to think and create freely.

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