Lincoln Financial CIO on post-COVID, remote work plans, Agile

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Ken Solon is EVP, CIO, and Head of Digital for Lincoln Financial Group—and is a member of the company’s senior management committee. He is responsible for Lincoln’s enterprise-wide information technology and leads the company’s digital strategy and execution. Prior to joining Lincoln, he held senior technology and operations leadership positions at Chase and Prudential. He spoke with Novarica in late 2020; Novarica provided permission to Digital Insurance to repost the Q&A.

What are your top priorities for the next six to 12 months?
At the beginning of the pandemic, we transitioned nearly 12,000 employees to remote work in less than a week. In the months since, we’ve been able to sell, service, and manage our business effectively. We didn’t need any new capabilities to pivot because we had been investing in customer experience and digital customer journeys to create a frictionless process across channels.

Now we’re accelerating what we’ve been doing over the last four years to meet rapidly changing customer needs during the pandemic. To reduce friction in the experience at every stage of the value chain, we’re investing in APIs, chatbots, and various forms of electronic communication. For example, as in-person visits to financial professionals were put on pause and paper mail faced slowdowns, we’ve eliminated paper-based statements in retirement plan services, and we’re doing that now in annuities and life insurance. We’re also adding e-billing capabilities.

It’s about meeting customers where they want to be met. Their last best experience sets their expectation for interactions they have in the future. It’s not just financial services, but Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and others. That’s the standard we look to when it comes to ease of doing business.Besides the changes brought on by the pandemic, the continued low-interest rate environment is a long-term headwind on the insurance industry. To address this, we are repricing products, adding new products, and shifting focus where necessary. We’ve made more than 70 changes in our annuity portfolio alone this year. Being this nimble was unheard of two years ago, and it demonstrates the importance and success of our speed-to-market capabilities.

How has the relationship between IT and other business units evolved over the past year?
Our transformation started four years ago. We had an IT organization that had more of a cost-center mentality. We worked hard to change to a value center and focused on bringing strategic clarity along with technology capabilities. Again, this was driven in large part by customer expectations. They want the same experience from us that they get from digital-first companies.

We’re leveraging that strategy in our move to Agile for faster speed to market, better prioritization, and greater transparency between the business and IT. Three years ago, we had two Agile teams—and now we have more than 100 teams working in Agile methodologies. At this point, it’s hard to tell the difference between business and IT team members in terms of their perspective and understanding.

How have your teams adapted to remote work?
It’s amazing how well our teams continue to operate in this environment, leveraging an Agile mindset to make it work across the enterprise. Teams are empowered to test and learn, for instance, using collaboration tools to meet and work together in new ways across locations and time zones in this virtual environment.There are a lot of roles that we didn’t expect to be as productive as they have been in the work-from-home environment, but productivity is very high, and customer service levels in many cases are actually higher than in the office environment.

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges ahead?
At Lincoln, we see the opportunity for establishing a competitive advantage in a more virtual environment, so for IT specifically, we are going to need to continue to drive productivity and efficiency. We will need to accelerate cloud adoption and scale our Agile capabilities. We’re also maturing our DevOps capabilities, moving from quality assurance to quality engineering.

Of course, the security environment is also constantly evolving and a growing focus. There’s been a growth of bad actors trying to take advantage of the virtual environment, particularly with phishing and DDoS attacks. So it’s an area that requires continued attention and investment.

Which emerging technologies are you most interested in and excited about?
Cloud isn’t really "emerging," but it’s important for us to continue to mature in that area. Taking advantage of serverless computing, especially in data analytics, is very powerful. We’re investing in visualization tools and enabling citizen data scientists. This will build the foundation for AI and machine learning and help us foster a culture of learning and curiosity.

I heard a conference speaker say recently that the shelf life of technology is now 18 months—sometimes it feels like days! Just staying on top of new capabilities and skills development is a continuing challenge. To promote upskilling, we created Lean In and Learn IT, an interactive digital program that gives our team members a deep dive into a key IT strategy each month. So far we’ve covered digital and architecture, Agile and DevOps, cloud, big data, and cybersecurity.

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Life insurance CIO Coronavirus Work from home Customer experience Digital distribution