Ensuring digital talent's in place at insurance giant Aviva

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 27, 2018
Enabling digital transformation at UK insurance giant Aviva has not just been about technological and process change. It has also been about putting the right talent in place and keeping it there.

Aviva logo on mug
A huge 80% of UK insurance giant Aviva’s top team has changed since it started out on its digital transformation journey four years ago, bringing the number down from 13 to 10.

But such a move was necessary as a core means for Group CEO Mark Wilson to realise his vision of enabling the firm to become a “320 year-old digital disrupter”. It meant shifting the company culture in the process and introducing what Sarah Morris, the firm’s chief people officer, calls “mental agility”.

In an organization where many staff remain in service for as much as 40 years, however, achieving this feat has not always been easy. Therefore, about 18 months ago, the decision was taken to identify its top 300 leaders across the business and retrain them to succeed in a digital world that is seen as so core to its future. Morris explains:

We spent time as the top team getting clear on where we were going…and then we took our top 300 leaders and provided them with high-value content taught by a mixture of academics and execs. We were essentially retraining our organisational leaders…we looked at the capability of each one and decided who we should invest in, and that means you have to make tough decisions…it’s about creating a shift in talent, but not everyone can go with it. You can train tortoises to climb trees, but squirrels are always going to find it easier.

But change also took place lower down within the company too. Thousands of people shifted roles and reporting lines as the firm simplified its organizational structure, changed its operating model and reduced the number of geographical markets it did business in from 22 to 13.

The move was at least partially influenced by the introduction of the Organization Accelerator Questionnaire (OAQ) tool,  which measures corporate culture. Morris says:

When we ran OAQ, it told us that we’d set new lows on some dimensions. In fact, it told us we were more complex than NASA, or the NHS, and so simplicity became our biggest focus.

Dealing with change

Other aims, however, included supporting higher levels of collaboration between business units such as the UK insurance and global asset management arm, and speed, which meant getting products and services out of the door more quickly. But a third objective was developing the ability to learn from mistakes. Morris says:

It’s difficult in a risk-based environment, but we’re starting to change the dialogue on what it means.

The human toll taken as a result of such change has inevitably been high though. As a result, the company has spent “a lot of time and resources” on staff welfare and mental health initiatives. In 2017, it also signed up to the UK’s Time for Change campaign,  which aims to stop mental health discrimination in the workplace. Morris explains:

Change, and the resultant organizational challenges, creates stress. But people in call centres are particularly subject to it too – they can end up taking calls from someone saying they have cancer or letting us know that a relative has been involved in a car crash, so it’s not easy.

Therefore, we’ve invested heavily in mental health, and wellbeing more generally, in terms of support in the office, benefits and people being able to take more time out – for example, about 80% of our people have some kind of caring responsibility that they couldn’t perform otherwise. And now we’ve seen the biggest ever reduction in undue stress at work last year.

Another means of attempting to make the company’s culture a more positive one has been to include employee engagement on managers’ key performance indicator scorecards, which are in turn linked to their renumeration levels. Data on engagement levels is based on 10 factors and analyzed by a third party provider.

Overall this approach appears to be paying off. While engagement levels stood at 68% in 2012, the year before Aviva’s transformation initiative was launched, five years later they had hit 75%.

The company’s share price has also risen from £264.12 five years ago to £534.80 last year. Its profit after tax has jumped to £165 billion from £36 billion in 2012 and it now has some 7.5 million digital customers compared to a round zero five years ago.

My take

In a large, traditional company like Aviva, which operates in one of the most risk-averse sectors in the world, change is never easy and so has to be carefully managed. While putting the right processes and technology in place to facilitate transformation will help, digital transformation initiatives can never truly succeed unless organizations find ways to take their people with them.

Some staff will inevitably not be prepared to stay the course, others – and not necessarily always those whom you expect – will, so it is important to provide the necessary training and support to help them adjust and flourish into the future.

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