‘DVR for data’ gives TIAA deep insights into its digital business

Retirement wealth manager TIAA built an analytics system to gauge how its digital services are performing in real time, giving IT an immediate pulse on how consumers are responding to them.

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Imagine an analytics tool that records every transaction that courses through your digital assets in real time and lets you scroll through scores of them to gain insights about your business. If such a tool -- let's call it a TiVo for your digital business -- existed it would prove incredibly valuable in helping you quantify the performance and value of technology initiatives designed to serve customers.

TIAA Chief Digital Officer Scott Blandford has created such a system for the financial services firm. The custom-built THOR (TIAA Hyperdata Online Repository) churns through data streams running through the company's websites, applications and other customer channels. The tool, which Blandford calls the "operating console for our digital business," helps TIAA glean insights about how the company can improve the software services that help consumers manage their retirement wealth and pursue financial advice.

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"I'm inspecting 200 million data points an hour that are whizzing by me and we're creating a customer session on it," Blandford says, adding that he uses data THOR collects to show CEO Roger Ferguson the as-is state of TIAA's digital business. "These are important corporate measures because our CEO wants to know how we're making progress digitally."

A real-time pulse of customer engagement

It's a crucial undertaking at a time when CIOs are struggling to explain the value of their digital efforts to their CEOs. Most IT leaders lack reliable ways to measure the impact of their digital efforts and many more admit they're unsure how to go about it, according to Gartner research.

Scott Blandford, Chief Digital Office, TIAA TIAA

Scott Blandford, Chief Digital Office, TIAA

CIOs are mulling questions such as what exactly constitutes digital and whether a CIO should measure digital services provided by the CMO or other business leaders who are consuming cloud or other technology services to serve customers. CIOs who have cracked this quandary are using the customer as their North Star.

DBS CIO David Gledhill is one such IT boss, as he recently told CIO.com, “Digital engagement drives business and revenue volumes and so just the metric of how many times a customer touches you is important.”

Customer engagement is also at the heart of TIAA's efforts with THOR, Blandford says. Traditionally, TIAA tracked customer interactions by checking web logs weekly or monthly. But this static approach -- measuring what happened at a point of time rather than up-to-the-minute -- is a poor reflection of a digital business in which transactions are conducted in real time -- or close to it. "Customers expect Web pages to be fast," Blandford says. "If they're not, then they question the value of your firm."

THOR begins monitoring customer behaviors when people engage with TIAA assets on the web, or mobile devices and follows the customer's data path all the way to servers in TIAA's data centers. It counts page loading speeds to help ascertain TIAA's digital performance, how long customers visited a page, where they clicked, and most importantly, whether they completed their transaction or abandoned it to call TIAA's customer service.

A direct line between customer and IT

User experience designers, developers and engineers responsible for functionality such as enrollment, bill pay, rebalancing portfolios in the company's trading, retirement and financial advice products watch this activity on a heat-map style visualization interface in real-time. They can stop, pause, rewind, fast-forward and playback the activity -- just like a DVR, Blandford says.

If they see a web-page performance slow-down in, for example, Ohio, they can investigate whether the problem lies with the company or the internet. The groups can tweak the products, removing or adding certain features without requesting permission from Blandford or his lieutenants. Blandford said they are essentially autonomous departments tending to aisles in a large store.

“They love it, because in big companies it’s tough to connect your work, especially when you’re in IT, to customers,” Blandford says. “THOR has unlocked all of that for us.”

TIAA had limited THOR’s scope to digital transactions when it was initially released more than a year ago. Over time, TIAA began funneling in information collected from paper forms customers filled out, calls they made to the company's service representatives, as well as in-person visits to TIAA branches. The move ensured THOR was providing a broader view of the company’s customer service and operational performance.

Information THOR collects is aggregated, collated and analyzed to generate metrics that shows how the various software products are performing individually and in total, as part of a top-line digitization score of the company. “To get that score right we have to build a lot of great stuff on the web and drive adoption so that customers come back,” Blandford says.

Those looking to buy THOR or build it are out of luck. Unfortunately, there isn't a blueprint available for this architecture. This isn't some system TIAA hacked together with Apache Spark, Hadoop and other tools. It's a proprietary system TIAA built and the company has lodged patents ranging from data collection processes to visualization capabilities.

There is something even the mighty THOR can get its hammer on: Building consumer awareness of TIAA's digital services. Blandford says TIAA is working hard to do a better job spreading the word about its digital services, both its existing products and new releases. "Of those things available digitally … only some customers try them," Blandford says. "That gap is about adoption and awareness."

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