by Jennifer O'Brien

Syed Ahmed: Leading the ‘digital transformation’ charge at Bupa

May 27, 2016
CareersHealthcare IndustryRisk Management

When other little boys were inventing superheroes, obsessively playing sports and developing street games, 8-year-old Syed Ahmed was mesmerised by programming. No doubt, Bupa’s head of digital products and operations was a natural-born business technologist right from the start.

“I started programming when I was eight on my Commodore 64. When all of my friends were playing video games, I was programming. I created my own very nascent database management system. I did it because, like all good things, it came out of a need. I needed to store my ‘knock knock’ jokes somewhere. I thought, ‘Why would you write them down when you can create a database,’” says Ahmed, who today is leading Bupa’s digital transformation strategy under the Data Digital division.

Certainly, the Abu Dhabi-born Ahmed – who ventured to Australia alone at 18 “with only a backpack and suitcase” and earned a Bachelor of Commerce with a specialisation in information systems and a masters honours in artificial intelligence from the University of Wollongong – is the posterboy for academic achievement and excellence – and ideally suited to lead Bupa’s journey into digital enablement.

His professional repertoire reads like an encyclopedia for the overachievers. He bucked the family trend of becoming a medical professional (“my Dad is a biochemist and my Mum is a microbiologist”) and initially wanted to be an aero mechanical engineer, before his journey in IT was cemented.

Once on the IT path, he never looked back. He has worked at Servcorp, where he earned two CEO’s Achievement awards for his work on a massive global CRM implementation that was the underpinning of a large global business transformation.

Across a host of businesses, he has worn many hats from software engineer, software development consultant, enterprise architect, strategy and architecture, senior manager of technology, principal consultant and business technology strategist, as well as head of business technology and head of digital delivery.

Recognising he needed to master the art of business, he also earned an executive MBA, an invaluable toolset that gives him a seat at the table and a vernacular to speak across all facets of business and disciplines.

“You can go through and work in different departments and pick up those individual skills, but really that would take you a lifetime. The MBA is the condensed version. It makes you dangerous enough that you speak the language. When you are sitting down with an accountant, you can talk about amortisation in a meaningful way with them and they relate.”

No doubt, the highly driven and determined Ahmed has the right mindset and balance of leadership skills to lead the transformational charge at Bupa.

“Bupa is going though a large transformation program. As part of that, one of the ambitions Bupa has is to really leverage its skills and abilities in the digital space and use that as a mechanism to get closer interactions with its customers, and with everyone else,” he says.

“It is customer-led transformation. This is what this large program is interested in solving. There is literally no part of the organisation that is not going through a change: end to end changes in terms of efficiencies and in customer interactions.”

Battling misconceptions

Indeed, it is exciting times for Bupa, Ahmed says, explaining the company is often misunderstood and underestimated in terms of its functionality and scope.

“We sit at the confluence of two heavily regulated industries: health and financial services. People say, ‘You have to make all of these changes.’ Yes, but these are two heavily regulated industries so all of the controls and things that slow you down are there for a reason. They are there for a good reason,” he said, explaining change takes time and a measured approach.

In A/NZ, Bupa offers not only health insurance, but also aged care and health services, including dental, optical and medical GP clinics, among other things. Ahmed says the digital transformation plan, which is customer-led and focussed, aims to support Bupa’s aspiration to be known as a health and care partner.

“In general, people’s understanding of Bupa is that it is a health insurer, but it is so much more than that. And the belief to help change the face of the Australian healthcare landscape from a digital perspective is certainly available and it is there to be taken.”

And he’s excited by the prospects of real transformative change, both within the organisation and externally via stakeholders.

“What really excites me is the fact there is a hurdle that we are about to jump over. I am completely confident in our group and the teams to get the right platforms and processes in place, which says we are digitally enabled now – and then what comes after that is the ability,” he says.

“What keeps me coming back for more is just that opportunity to have a part to play in changing healthcare in Australia. It is palpable. It is an organisation that has will, intent and money and the desire to really make that change, and you get given license to do it, and that’s what excites me.”

Digital dance steps

So what’s involved in the digital dance? For starters, the Data Digital group is clear about its purpose.

“The Data Digital group has been around in some way for a couple of years now, but in its current incarnation we’ve generally categorised all projects over two equally important horizons. The first consists of digital operations across the business, which support the digital acquisition, retention and servicing channels. This involves lots of projects of all sizes which range from optimising sales pathways, enhancing functionality to self-service portals, and enabling major ATL marketing campaigns.

“An example of a major customer experience focussed project that we implemented was The Blue Room – a content destination hub supported and amplified by social channels. The second horizon is looking ahead a few years, which is currently manifested as a combination of the transformational re-platforming projects.”

It all boils down to digital enablement. “Bupa’s vision and purpose is longer, healthier, happier lives. We don’t have to come up with something new. We affirm and completely get behind the whole Bupa vision, and we push harder with our digital expertise,” he says.

Ahmed says some of the initial steps towards “getting ready for the transformation” includes the re-platforming work.

“Re-platforming is not the goal. Re-platforming is the thing that gives us the launchpad to do other things. The major technology that we are using is Sitecore. It is our content and experience management platform. It does content management, but it is quite sophisticated in its implementation. We are also pushing the boundaries – we are putting in Microsoft Azure with proper devops capability,” he said.

Additionally, there’s a big push towards adopting a new and improved workflow.

“We are looking at how we do things. How might we change some of the status quo internally and externally? We’re introducing, for example, different ways of working in our team. The digital group is truly agile. We have proper cross functional multidisciplinary teams that work in rapid iterations from a delivery cycle,” Ahmed says.

“We have embedded people functions within our group. We will focus on human centric design, embedding learning back into our group, which is quite different than most organisations. We “dogfood” it and then we are hoping to share that out across the rest of the organisation.”

Not surprisingly, the transformation project involves more than just technology.

“What you want to do is build a culture around using that technology and then pushing that technology – and in order to do that, you need to set up the right processes and consider the human and cultural aspects.

“The two enablers are: the actual technology, but then it is the way that you use that technology. You can teach people things like: What are your methods for innovation? What are your methods for human centric design, or customer led innovation? But you have to give people space for that,” he says.

Indeed, Ahmed says cultural change is a monumental and ongoing challenge for any company.

“People are people and change is threatening and different. So you have to make it real. You can use the words but you have to be able to offer context; because without context none of it is real. Be able to answer: What does it mean to you? What does innovation, what does agile and human centric design mean to us, in our team, in our business context in the industry, and for what we want it to be. What do you want the space to look and feel like?”

So what’s the future? He says wearable technology worn as digital health products and delivered and serviced digitally is on the likely horizon.

“We are going through an enablement phase. The key products from a digital perspective is overtly outward customer facing technology platforms – and that’s what we’re building now. Once those platforms are in place, that’s when the truly exciting digital stuff will eventuate – where we can start talking about some of the crazy stuff,” he says.

“We haven’t got to a point where it is a truly digital product yet. What that means is, you can’t acquire it, or you can’t service it in any other way. We are moving to a point where a number of wearables that you are using can combine together – you give us permission to use that technology – and you do it on the basis that we provide value to you from that. It could be something that is monitoring and helping you with the state of your health.”

Striking a balance

And while Ahmed lives and breathes technology, and is working hard as a change agent, he aims to strike a balance in life.

“One of the things that helps me balance all of this stuff is that I am a massive believer in purpose. I dislike the idea of technology for technology’s sake. There is a component of academic and intellectual research and application, but it is funny for a technologist, a digital technologist like myself, to almost dislike the idea of over consumerism.

“I am trying to teach my kids about being centred and being aware, and to be less digital, if they can. They get exposure to that at school. They are native to it, but what they don’t know is how to dig a little hole in the ground, so I take them camping to an unpowered site.

“No gadgets allowed. I go where there is no reception so people can’t contact me. It is total disconnect. I am finding balance in life away from technology, which is quite funny. I’m not a luddite, but I say, ‘There is a cost to this technology,’ and you have to be aware of it.”

Back on the job and Ahmed – the business strategist and technologist who clearly demonstrated a record of aligning technology to business strategy – is on a mission to make sense of the digital world and to align it properly.

“You have to be incredibly comfortable with ambiguity in the digital space because it is undefined. It means different things to different people. Digital means different things to marketing, to sales, to servicing, and to everyone else in the company,” he says, explaining he is comfortable with the ambiguity and is taking it as a “personal challenge” to make sense of it.

“Leadership is where you attack ambiguity in your way, in whatever tools you possess. And you use those tools to make sense of that ambiguity – because otherwise you aren’t making it better, you are just operating in it. That’s not a bad thing, but a leader needs to make it better.”

No doubt, he is able to push boundaries and make a difference. “Digital in enterprise-based roles like mine is concurrently exciting and difficult. Exciting because it provides almost unlimited opportunities to explore. Difficult because by nature, most large enterprises are appropriately set up to operate efficiently at scale, and the things that make them efficient also sometimes encumber them. I’m lucky that in my current role I have the permission to question the status quo and push the boundaries, but sometimes you need to be respectful that certain controls are there for a reason.”