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CIO50 2018 #13: Sarah Harland, Suncorp

  • Name Sarah Harland
  • Title Chief information officer
  • Company Suncorp
  • Commenced role 2016
  • Reporting Line CEO
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Technology Function 1,500 Suncorp staff, 1,500 partner staff, eight direct reports
  • Related

    The cornerstone of Suncorp’s pivot to put the customer at its centre has been the launch of its new app, bringing together Suncorp’s products and services in one place.

    “The app brings Suncorp’s strategy to life in a very practical way for customers, making it easier and more rewarding to connect to and navigate the full suite of Suncorp’s brands, products and services, in addition to those of third parties,” explains Sarah Harland, the company’s chief information officer.

    Whereas previously customers of Suncorp’s brands – which include AAMI, APIA, Shannons, GIO and Suncorp – interacted on a transactional basis, such as with a policy renewal or to make a claim, now they enjoy a “simple, personalised and empowering experience.”

    Powering the app are 380 RESTful JSON APIs that encapsulate core legacy insurance, banking and data capabilities, exposing them as consumable micro-services. Cloud-based, scaled API infrastructure securely manages the data and APIs for internal and external consumption, creating seamless access to products and services across the ecosystem.

    Meanwhile, an API-enabled OAuth2 identity architecture pivots away from legacy, siloed brand and product-based authentication to a unified identity delivering a more holistic understanding of the customer.

    Applying machine-learning tooling using Python, H2O and Apache Spark, combined with personalisation logic and the latest techniques available via gradient-boosted machines allows for ‘next best action’ capabilities, “prompting customers with timely and contextual offers and experiences to more accurately meet their needs,” Harland says.

    Artificial intelligence is also used to provide customers with spending analysis and indicators of their financial health, with assistance for users to navigate their financial assets, ask questions, obtain quotes and access products provided via an in-house developed chatbot.

    Transforming ways of working

    The app required a “transformational change in the way we worked internally,” Harland says, “moving away from the development of bespoke infrastructure and processes by business and brand to the delivery of a single, integrated customer experience”.

    Behind the app sits “an open platform of connected digital, data and partner assets” established by Harland’s Technology, Data and Labs teams in collaboration with business partners and customers. And all in less than a year.

    To achieve this, the teams benefitted from mature Agile practices being applied at scale, as well as enhancements to the way the company carried out design, planning and governance, which proved especially beneficial in the latter stages of the project “when all components were orchestrated to produce the final product.”

    “Core technology and business teams defined and built core APIs while digital teams designed the customer experience and built experience APIs. All came together with strong leadership and effective communication across all stakeholders maintaining a common objective and focus on the end customer experience,” Harland adds.

    Throughout the process, Harland worked hard to raise “awareness and appreciation” of Technology, Data and Labs teams within the business “to build influence and enhance trust with stakeholders.”

    This was done through frequent town halls and online videos and in-person meetings, to share the divisions’ strategy, successes and learnings.

    “Taking the time and opportunity to reach out to other areas of the business and collaborate openly was critical,” Harland says.

    Adaptive influence

    Harland’s ability to effectively influence leadership and bring colleagues along on the transformation journey is a skill learned from working in the UK and US.

    Moving to a US-based role in the early noughties, Harland found the “openly challenging, egalitarian, American style of leadership” in stark contrast to that she had experienced in the UK.

    “I had grown accustomed to researching and thinking through problems independently and then giving direction to team members to carry out instructions, knowing that the success or failure of any project would ultimately sit with me,” Harland says.

    “My American colleagues, conversely, were highly collaborative – easily reaching across organisational lines and layers to seek out the best idea, generally with a disregard for hierarchy. Opinions, feedback, instructions and input were given directly by superiors, peers and direct reports alike,” she adds.

    “I realised quickly that to be effective I needed to adapt my style to the culture and behavioural norms of my new situation if I were to lead a transformation successfully.”

    She quickly adapted – openly asking for feedback, engaging with colleagues to develop strategy and asking others to help influence the organisation on her behalf.

    “I developed enormous respect for this style of leadership and have become a much better leader as a result. That experience helped me to integrate in Australia where I have brought my technology skills as well as building my ability to adapt to different cultural situations,” Harland says.

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