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Upskilling and agile are pillars in Sun Life’s digital transformation

Alice Thomas on how Sun Life’s 50,000-strong team leverages nimble, tech-forward solutions to support a global network of clients.

Photo via #WOCinTech Chat
Photo via #WOCinTech Chat

Pushing a digital transformation journey forward is a lot of work in any business. For Sun Life, it’s quite literally a massive undertaking. 

Think: 50,000-employees-navigating-change-and-upskilling-level big.

Managing change in the insurance industry is a complicated affair, as many organizations have to split their technology budgets between maintaining existing business, while also innovating. In addition, tech talent is hard to recruit in a competitive market, and agile workplaces make career progression less obvious for those who want to see a path forward.

For Alice Thomas, the key to success in a sea of challenges is culture.

As Chief Architect and Digital Technology Officer at Sun Life, Thomas is at the helm of the key teams responsible for delivering digital experiences for the business. A major component of the job is pinpointing areas to be improved, and implementing new and innovative solutions. And she has to do it for a multi-sided business made up of different stakeholders —  advisors, clients, and employees.

“In order for us to really be a digital company, we had to change our culture,” says Thomas. Five years ago the business adopted an agile approach to transformation that empowered teams to experiment, fail fast to succeed sooner, and learn.

“I think that’s a big change in how we look at digital leadership and giving people that opportunity to try new, innovative approaches and telling them it’s okay to do something different that you haven’t done before,” she says. “That’s a big change in our culture.” 

Previously, teams at Sun Life would operate in a hierarchical manner where employees would

“send everything upstairs for decision-making,” Thomas says. Big, monolithic projects would require endless back and forth.

When Sun Life switched to an agile approach, it drove more efficiency, and in turn, more innovation.

Alice Thomas (Photo via LinkedIn)

“Our journey is called the digital enterprise. It’s not just digital for Canada, or digital for Asia. It’s the digital enterprise and everybody in the company is on the same journey.”

Thomas says about 70% of digital projects are completed this way, and the result is everyone talks with the same nomenclature and language, and everyone has input or is aware of what’s going on.

“We talk about career growth for people in these journeys, because roles have changed. Remember, the manager doesn’t exist in agile. They may be a scrum master, they may be a product leader. We’ve had to train everyone.”

Thomas says another important factor in building best-in-class teams is training and upskilling existing people. Rather than making individuals apply for their job all over again when teams move to an agile approach, Sun Life trains its people to shift to new ways of working so everyone is on the same journey. When new people are hired, Thomas says everyone plays a role in training, creating new learning, and growth opportunities.

“Whether you are a technologist or someone in the business, now you’ve got a new role — a kind of product owner — which was not something we had before. We’re shifting to new ways of working and giving everybody an opportunity to learn and be part of it.”

Photo via #WOCinTech Chat

When agile leaders focus on building culture, innovation wins

The biggest benefit of the approach Sun Life has taken, Thomas says, is the old days of “those guys in digital” being the only ones who know what’s changing are long gone.

Adaptability is also baked into Sun Life’s approach.

For example, during the pandemic, Thomas and her team experimented with ways of making it easier for clients to book virtual appointments with healthcare providers.

The result: Ella, a digital coach.

Ella is a voice interface that provides product recommendations and actionable, data-driven insights through personalized and intelligent nudges. Ultimately, it makes the process of booking virtual healthcare provider appointments easier via web, mobile devices, and using voice requests. Ella even enables clients to access their health and benefits information using Amazon Alexa. 

Sun Life says it is one of the first companies in the insurance and finance industries to implement a voice interface. Today, Ella has connected with clients more than 40 million times between January and March 2022.

And while it’s early days, Thomas notes that prototyping VR experiences and even virtual recruiting could be next on the docket. This could be especially promising, since much of Sun Life’s new talent consists of recent grads hoping to obtain a fresh perspective on emerging technologies.

“We are looking at the Metaverse now,” she explains. “Giving students a VR experience on what it’s like to work here and be in our building. We are trying to figure out what makes sense and the things that will make it easy for a client or employee to play with it and be interested.”

Innovation leaders pick their battles

While experiments are important for innovation, Thomas also advocates for prioritization, saying that it doesn’t make sense to try innovating everything.

“I was looking at quantum computing during the pandemic. We sent a couple of our developers on some quantum computing courses,” she explains. “When they came back, we learned that it’s still early days. We started looking at cases where quantum could help us, but nothing was really viable, because the technology is still early.”

Of course, timing and cost benefit analysis is also important, and technologies could be revisited down the road, but as Thomas says, “you have to be smart about what you pick.” 

Another thing that innovators need to get used to is they sometimes need to pivot away from projects after they’ve started.

“This is a culture of innovation that allows people to take some calculated risks, dabble in some new stuff, and walk away when it doesn’t work. You have to know when to take your learnings and get out. That’s key.” 

Thomas recalls a project years ago that took a lot of time, and in the end the leadership team decided the solution wouldn’t work so the project had to be rethought entirely.

“It kind of created some new DNA [at Sun Life],” she says. “It really changed the conversation around experimentation, how long you experiment for, and also being smart enough to get out quickly.”

Today, Thomas says about 10% of what comes through her innovation lab has gone into production, with the other 90% driving ongoing learning.

Photo via #WOCinTech Chat

Moving toward a more diverse and inclusive business

Culture is a key ingredient in Sun Life’s digital transformation success, but so is its focus on diversity and inclusion, says Thomas.

“You can’t get these types of client-facing capabilities built unless you have a diverse team,” she says. “Your team has to mirror your client groups.”

Attracting women to the company has been a big focus, and today, Thomas says 40% of Sun Life’s IT workforce is now made up of women.

“We’ve been successful because we’ve been able to hire and retain a lot of great talent in our company,” she says, crediting events and industry collaboration as some of the biggest contributors to the company’s talent pipeline.

Case in point: the WeaveSphere innovation conference.

Sun Life is a sponsor and long-time supporter of the event as part of its efforts to engage with young innovators researching career paths.

“We do a lot to attract talent, but it’s one of the most difficult, especially now for any company,” she says.

WeaveSphere, which takes place in Toronto November 15-17, 2022, creates relationships between industry leaders, developers, and academics who collaborate to accelerate innovation.

Want to learn more about Sun Life and its approach to innovation? Meet Thomas and the Sun Life team at #WeaveSphere. Get your tickets today.


Digital Journal is an official media partner for WeaveSphere. We will share updates leading up to the event, and we’ll be live on location from November 15-17,2022. Join us and get your tickets at weavesphere.co.

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