by Martha Heller

How COVID accelerated digital transformation at Aflac

Aug 19, 2020
IT Leadership

Rich Gilbert, chief digital information officer, on how COVID-19 is allowing IT at the insurer to move full steam ahead on its innovation roadmap.

Rich Gilbert, senior vice president and chief digital information officer, Aflac
Credit: Aflac

Before COVID-19 became a reality, Aflac, the $23 billion insurance company, had embarked on a digital transformation. Launched in early 2019, “One Digital Aflac” would use technology to make it easier for customers to buy insurance, for the sales teams to sell into the marketplace, and for employees to deliver. “We built a whole portfolio around looking at our business from the customer lens,” says Rich Gilbert, senior vice president and chief digital information officer, who joined Aflac in January of last year. 

To drive One Digital Aflac, Gilbert refocused the IT team away from data center optimization and data lakes, which were foundational but did not change the customer experience, to higher value capabilities. “We restructured our operating model to be customer-centric and brought our business and IT teams together to improve business services,” Gilbert says. “We even renamed our organization from IT to Digital Services to support the strategic shift.”

But then COVID hit, and the newly named Digital Services team had to shift immediately from delivering on One Digital Aflac to getting 100 percent of employees (up from 15 percent) to work from home, something they were well prepared to do. “We had warning signs from Japan three weeks before the virus hit the U.S.,” says Gilbert. “Since the insurance business is all about managing risk, we were early adopters of virtual desktops and pre-bought laptops to enable a virtual workforce.”

For Gilbert, the sudden shift from digital strategy to operational stability demonstrated his team’s ability to be both tactical and strategic. “This was a real test for our ability to focus,” says Gilbert. “At the same time as we were providing virtual collaboration tools and building new external network monitoring, we were really thinking, ‘How do we get back to One Digital Aflac, and even accelerate it?’”

Getting back to digital

Having now stabilized operations for a COVID world, Gilbert and his team are back to delivering on One Digital Aflac. They’ve recently implemented, for example, guest checkout, to enable customers to bypass the data entry necessary to access their account. When policyholders want to file a claim online, they need policy numbers, account information, and their password, just as in banking. But unlike in banking, where customers might log on every day, insurance customers log on infrequently enough that inputting information was proving to be a significant barrier.

With guest checkout, customers don’t have to know their policy number. They just need a few pieces of information, and are able to submit a claim. “Guest checkout is commonplace in some industries,” says Gilbert, “but it’s pretty revolutionary to insurance.” In addition to guest checkout, Gilbert and his team are automating self-service capabilities that use SMS texts for push alerts on claim status, and adding new features to the Aflac mobile app.

COVID spurs added digital investment

Gilbert is finding that rather than distracting Aflac senior management from investing in One Digital Aflac, COVID-19 is actually accelerating the strategy. “In the post-COVID world, companies fall into three categories,” says Gilbert. “Some will ‘retreat to run’ in order to conserve resources and stay in business. Others will ‘strive to maintain’ to get back to plans they created before the pandemic. Then there are companies, like Aflac, that see COVID-19 as a way to reinvent how we approach our traditional business and provide a catalyst to our digital roadmap.”

The traditional model at Aflac has been to sell through independent agents at the worksite. But with clients’ worksites disrupted, selling has become more complex. “Since COVID, we have had to rethink our sales process,” says Gilbert. “How do we communicate the benefits of our products in a digital model? How do we manage virtual enrollment, co-browsing through a policy review, and then provide e-signature? Since COVID, we are providing tools to digitize the entire experience as well as simplifying our products to make them easier to consume through digital channels.”

A virtual channel to sell a simpler, digital product, or what Gilbert calls “doubling down on digital,” relies on a technology strategy that involves three layers: engagement, integration, and data.

“On the data layer, we have all of these legacy systems — mainframes that we operate that are older,” says Gilbert. “We are extending those legacy systems through microservices and pulling the data into hubs that correlate across multiple legacy systems. We call this strategy ‘wrap and evolve.’”

The API integration takes that data — a single view of the customer, or a single view of a policy, for example, and feeds the engagement layer. “Through this three-layer technology strategy, we can isolate our legacy technologies, use APIs to integrate to our data layer, and improve the digital experience for our customers.”

Silver linings

With remote employees highly productive, and One Digital Aflac back on track, Gilbert sees two significant silver linings for Aflac as a result of COVID-19:

The first is acceleration of the company’s digital strategy. “In May, our global operations and technology committee approved additional investments to accelerate our digital strategy,” says Gilbert. “We are simplifying and reinventing our products, enabling digital sales, and using automation to optimize our back-office processes. If COVID didn’t happen, we would have moved forward on all of this, but not as quickly.”

The second silver lining is more trust in IT. “In most companies, the future of IT’s success will be defined by how it responded and adapted to the crisis, and eventually, evolved from it,” Gilbert says. “IT can either gain or lose the trust of its business partners. At Aflac, we gained that trust and solidified our reputation with our business, which has enabled us do things that we didn’t think we would be able to. We are helping to reinvent our business at its core.”