The Pension Protection Fund's cloud transformation - a progress report two years on

Mark Samuels Profile picture for user Mark Samuels June 2, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
After putting strong IT foundations in place, the organization is now looking to create a whole new series of data-led digital services.

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The Pension Protection Fund (PPF) is moving to the next stage of a cloud-led digital transformation program that will put data at the core of its internal processes and its interactions with external members and partners.

The PPF protects the financial futures of close to 10 million people who belong to more than 5,200 UK defined benefit pension schemes. Two years ago, Simon Liste, Chief Information Technology Officer at the PPF, explained to diginomica how using the cloud helped his organization cope with the new way of working required by social distancing.

As part of this ongoing shift to the cloud, Liste brought IT management back in-house and disaggregated the support model to spread provision across a series of suppliers, reducing the level of potential risk from being over-reliant on one firm. He also took a cloud-first approach to IT implementation, using Microsoft Azure, 365, Teams, Zoom and VMware.

Liste estimates about 90% of the PPF’s systems are now in the cloud, including production services. Moving forward, the PPF is entering a new three-year strategic plan. Liste says technology will be crucial to a continuing business transformation and he argues that the shift to the cloud has been built on the right principles:

I think that move has been driven – which is how it should be – by business demand. From a technology perspective, there was a lot of technical debt and legacy code that we had to address. There's still some there. I'm not going to sit here and say that those legacy issues have been completely addressed because it's just not possible to eradicate everything within three years, which is quite a short period of time in terms of change. But we’ve made big progress.

The move to the cloud has been focused on meeting business demand for performance, stability and scalability, especially within data analytics. As an example, Listen cites an increased ability to produce one of the PPF’s key finance outputs, known as Experience Reports. The complex range of calculations involved with these means that it used to take a small team of experts about eight to 12 weeks to generate the report. Now, the PPF’s cloud-based data platform can produce those results in 20 minutes. Liste explains:

The reduced time it takes to produce the financial reports shows the return on investment that comes from technology. And that's what the next three years is about – really transforming how people integrate data and work with data. The new strategy is all about using data in the transformation of work. It’s about people in the business using services and solutions to make their jobs much more effective.

Future thinking

The strategic plan has ambitious plans for the ongoing digitisation of services across the fund. He paints a picture of how people at the PPF might work with data in the future:

I would say it’s about moving away from working on spreadsheets and in silos to create a unified organization that has one true source of information. Then our people will be able to do with that information whatever they need to do. It’s all about how we work with data internally and externally – and that will mean we've got a much more informed internal user base that can make quicker and better decisions.

The key platforms that will allow Liste’s organization to push reductions in data-processing times are based on the Microsoft stack. What his team has tried to do, he says, is leverage the technology that's already there, such as Power BI, and to tap into other tactical data-led solutions where appropriate, including QlikView and Tableau:

The next three years is about empowering the rest of the organization to take much more control for technology and digital. My aspiration is to commoditise IT, which is about running IT in-house but then dispersing responsibility and ownership beyond the IT organization. That means we have to look at the capabilities of individuals across the business who are now going to consume those services.

To help ensure users get the most value from technology, Liste says it’s important to ensure commoditization is accompanied by a process of rationalization. While Power BI is the organization’s main data visualization tool, it’s fine for employees to use Tableau if the business case is right. Other tools can be used too, but the aim must be to ensure that the overall approach to technology is simple, value-led and integrated:

Rather than simply looking to apply a solution as the front end of a business conversation, we're saying: ‘No, give us the specification requirements, and then we'll apply the solution.’ If it's not Power BI, that’s potentially fine. But the technology has got to tie in with everything. Collaboration and integration are absolutely critical because that brings efficiency.

Joined-up data processing will mean people around the business can spend less time on administration and more time on simulations and number crunching. Liste is also keen to extend analytic capabilities beyond the enterprise firewall. Within the next few years, the PPF is keen to push more data out to its members so that they can use that information themselves, he explains:

That will take an omni-channel approach because what we're not wanting to do is replace traditional ways of engaging. But for people who want to interact with the data at any time, they’ll be able to do that. That's what we're aiming for – the ability to have this nucleus of data that we can deliver to our members, internal staff or external partners, such as the DWP [the UK Government’s Department for Works and Pensions].

Liste gives an example about how those kinds of data-led services might become manifest. While the PPF’s current website allows members to log on securely and look at information relating to their pensions, he anticipates his team will have developed much richer customer-focused services during the next few years:

What we want to do is allow you to forecast. So, you can think: ‘What about if I retire in 10 years’ time? What's the projection?’. We want to allow that kind of calculation and allow users to make better informed decisions. So, our approach is all about empowering the person to know the data is there, that the information is trustworthy and that they can then make decisions about what they need to do.

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