Carmen Casagranda of Cigna: The CIO as chief digital transformation officer

'The key to stepping up to any role is to have an open mind and be on a continuous learning and improvement mode' - Carmen Casagranda, Cigna NZ (Photo by Divina Paredes, CIO NZ)

When an organisation gets a new CEO, staff always brace for change.

In March 2014, Lance Walker took on the top role at the Cigna New Zealand, after chalking up three years in the same role at Loyalty New Zealand, which operates the Fly Buys programme.

What followed was a discussion with the wider executive team on how the insurance sector has not invested as much on technology as other sectors like retail, says Carmen Casagranda, Cigna NZ CIO.

He came in with a fresh perspective, says Casagranda, who was IT director at Cigna for over four years, before taking her current role in April this year.

“We have reached a tipping point where we have got a lot of legacy systems hampering our desire to move to a more modern, digital infrastructure,” she states. “As an organisation, we want to be the leading financial services in the digital world.”

She says the shift is important for Cigna’s direct to consumer model where clients do not deal with a broker but directly through their online or contact centre.

Cigna is a major provider of life, disability, trauma and travel insurance products and services. It is part of Cigna Corporation, a Fortune 500 company, and has been operating locally for over 90 years.

At the end of last year, Walker decided IT needed to be at the executive table rather than reporting through the Chief Operating Officer. Casagranda successfully applied for the role.

She says a combination of factors led to the creation of the role. First, customers want to interact with Cigna through their chosen channels, so it was critically important for them to become an omnichannel provider in a digital era.

Second, she says, was the growing importance of IT - as it has moved to being a key enabler rather than just a traditional back office function.

Today, she and her team are in the forefront as Cigna New Zealand embarks on a digital transformation programme.

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Digital is about building it once and building it well for whatever channel needs it.Carmen Casagranda, Cigna NZ



Channel integration

Casagranda says the goal is to move Cigna to an “omnichannel” environment, with a “full, seamless integration of data across all channels irrelevant to what applications are being used”.

The technology stack does not matter, she states. “The focus was about how we enable our business and customers to get what they want, when and how they want it - as quickly and accurately as possible.This is the key to enabling us to proactively respond to our customer’s requests, both internal and external.

“I am treating this as a greenfield approach,” she says.

There will be a completely new code base, which will give the company a new roadmap for migrating away from some of its legacy systems.

She says a lot of things Cigna is doing digitally is around complete integration between the online and contact centres, and being able to push that data through to any other application that needs to consume that data, such as mobile apps.

Some people want to lodge a claim on their mobile device and want to be able to have access to that information anywhere and anytime.

“It is something we have been aware of and we had a good opportunity [to enable this] at the beginning of this year.”

An earlier project when she was IT director gave her an important lesson on some of the processes necessary to move to a digital environment.

This was a pilot project on getting a ‘360 degree view of the customer’, using their traditional business process management tool.

“It is a great tool, but it is black box development”, she explains. “The tool allows for non-developers to be able to do drag and drop development, but there is no way of actually visibly seeing the code or putting the code into DevOps type tools.”

At the end of the pilot, she says, some of the things did not quite fit for what she wanted to achieve.

By putting everything in a black box tool, you risk doing the ‘put all your eggs in one basket’ type of approach. “You start creating single point dependencies with people,” she states. “And because everything was a black box analogy, it was not easy to push the data wherever it needs to go.

“That does not set the data as free as it needs to be. Any organisation that runs on data is about being able to give the data to whomever needs it, at any time, via their preferred channel. From our customers online, to our partners, our contact centres, to our business for analysing.”

Casagranda says she looked at what successful Internet driven companies like Google, Netflix and Amazon have been doing. “Why have those companies been so successful and able to grow quickly and have such a stable technology?”


With the support of the wider executive team, Casagranda did a second pilot, doing coding in a different way.

Casagranda had managed teams using Agile/Scrum methodology when she was working in the UK, and wanted to apply this concept at Cigna.

She talked to vendors across New Zealand to explain what they were trying to achieve. She then chose to work with Wellington-based Assurity for Agile and DevOps and Hypr to implement a hypermedia applications architecture.

She says part of the shift was a desire to better prioritise things across the business, and to make sure IT delivers to the business, frequently, regularly and getting them involved in the process rather than go through big traditional waterfall projects.

The pilot was successful, Cigna no longer does waterfall methodology for projects, and in parallel with this, kicked off an Agile transformation program across the whole organisation.

“I just don’t believe it will work without the whole business buying in,” she says. “Everybody needs to understand the prioritisation process and work together at being agile.”

She says the first thing they did was set up a project board committee composed of the executive and key business stakeholders.

They then created a project coordinating team to do sprint planning.

"We put the team in two-week sprint planning cycles," she says.

They also had an Agile coach with them full-time for six months, working with the business leaders on their roles and responsibilities under Agile. The coach also worked with the IT team on all the practices that go with the methodology.

She says in their case it was important to get an external person to train the team.

"I have done Agile development with a team I managed in London. But I am no expert," she explains.

You could send people on courses and they come back, she says. But with the coach on board with them, they can get things up and running quickly and they can already measure the benefits of those agile processes.

“Our estimation process is now so much more accurate,” she says. “We now have visibility of all the tasks and what is required to launch a campaign, a product, a new website or something for the contact centre.

“We are looking to have the minimum viable product ready before Christmas,” she says. “This project is part of Cigna's customer management programme and will provide the ability to do real time reporting and analytics on our legacy databases.”

She says Cigna is using technologies that are talking to a hypermedia API which is completely decoupled and that is then talking to all of the legacy databases.

Designing the network of data allows the API to talks to an entity, say customer.That entity then talks to multiple databases to get the data, she explains.

“As long as it gets the entity called (for example) customer, it does not care whether it comes from database A,B,C, D or E.

“What it is going to give me next year is the foundation for our digital architecture, which will provide the ability to start migrating away from two to three of our critical legacy systems.”

She says this migration challenge is not unique to Cigna. “Like other companies we struggled, how do you move away from legacy stuff and not do it in a big bang way?”

Next year, the digital transformation program will cover their telephony platform. “We are going to have full integration between our online and contact centre,” says Casagranda.

With the new system in place, the online team, for example, will be alerted that people are hovering over a question on the website. The contact centre agent will get a “trigger” to initiate a ‘click to chat’ with the customer.

The agent can then ask the customer what help they need, and this can be through sharing the browser and helping the customer fill out the form in real-time.


Related: Rising to the digital challenge? Think bimodal - Gartner


Stepping up


Casagranda is cognisant she is able to lead through the shift towards a digital business with the new CIO portfolio.

The biggest difference between being IT manager and CIO is you are stepping into full responsibility, being able to be at the executive table, and have that direct voice to the executive and management team, she says.

Almost every decision being made at the executive table has some technology impact, she states.

One of the biggest differences is when IT wasn’t at the executive table, decisions were being made that were based on assumptions because that detailed technology knowledge was not there to represent its part in the conversation, she says.

“It has made a big difference to the wider executive team being able to hear the technology approach pros and the cons, to make more informed decisions on things while understanding the technical opportunity cost. So, when someone is making a budget call or a priority call, you can explain the flow on impact across the business.”

Casagranda says the New Zealand team is around 220 so the ICT team is able to get a close view of what is going on across the organisation.

“Digital is about building it once and building it well for whatever channel needs it,” she explains.

At a meeting, for instance, marketing may state it wants more money to do customer self-service systems, and sales will also request funding for a customer-facing project.

“They both know there is a technology element to it but neither would have been thinking about it being the same technology solution.

“Bringing that holistic view to the table… has made a difference,” she states.

Casagranda says her background in consulting and marketing is providing a great foundation for her CIO role.

Early in her career, she says she made a conscious decision to work in consulting and have experience across broad sectors. She worked with the e-commerce strategy team at KPMG in Wellington, and ClarityBlue in London.

“Before it was called big data, we called it customer intelligence,” she explains on her work at ClarityBlue. She says among their customers were large UK banks, and they worked with them on analysing their data to create campaigns.

During the seven years with these two firms, she estimates having worked with at least 40 companies. “You start seeing common threads among companies regardless of industry or technology.”

“You get helicopter views, and pulling on what works well and lessons learned,” she says, and these are now part of her leadership tool kit.

But she says being a consultant means coming into project, and leaving it at the end.

“I wanted to own something, be responsible for the end to end of a project,” she says of her move to insurance.

After working at ClarityBlue she moved into programme management, working with three Lloyds of London insurance companies, Beazley, Allianz, Mitsui Sumitomo, before joining Cigna.

Allianz is where she started operating at the executive level. Brought in to deliver a previously failed programme of work to launch an online underwriting platform, she reported into the Global COO and Board of Directors managing a delivery team of 75 people across four countries.

She believes that introducing agile was key to successfully delivering the platform within 12 months of starting.

As to what worked for her as she progressed to different executive roles, she states: “The key to stepping up to any role is to have an open mind and be on a continuous learning and improvement mode.”

She has the same approach to technology.

“Technology is moving so quickly,” she says, “so be open to new ideas and building things in a way that are [of] robust quality, scalable, and completely uncoupled.”

Related: If you, as a CIO, are not leading digital, then you are eroding your role.


Carmen Casagranda at a CIO roundtable discussion in Wellington.


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