Guardian Lifes CIO And Chief Of Operations Identifies Creative Ways To Fuel Innovation Talent

February 17, 2022
BY Peter High Founder and President of Metis Strategy
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Dean Del Vecchio is the Executive Vice President, Chief Information Officer, and Chief of Operations at Guardian Life, roughly 160-year-old mutual company with roughly $10.5 billion in annual revenue. He leads a team of about 4,500 employees. He is a major driver of innovation across the company, but he and his team hoped to open up innovation to the majority of colleagues rather than make it a purview of a single team at Guardian Life. In fact, he has even facilitated a method to engage outside partners and vendors in the process, as well.

Del Vecchio has defined three categories of innovation:

  • Core innovation
  • Adjacent innovation
  • Transformational innovation

Core innovation entails finding a better, a faster or a simpler way to perform everyday tasks of the company.

Adjacent innovation requires monitoring other companies, including innovative ideas driven in other industries and translating them back to Guardian Life. “If there is somebody else doing something out there, it does not have to be in our industry, our segment or our market,” said Del Vecchio. “If somebody is doing something interesting and differently than we are today, let’s copy it.”

Transformational innovation fosters the development of truly big and new ideas for the company to pursue. “It is rethinking a market segment, [for example],” said Del Vecchio. “It could be rethinking how we do work entirely. We have been quite innovative in the way we thought about operating in the cloud, for example. We have been operating in the cloud since 2018. We shut down our data center in 2018. We no longer have an owned operating data center.”

To foster the development of all three types of innovation, Del Vecchio has developed innovation challenges for the team. It involves posing a challenge question of the team and leveraging the wisdom of the crowd to develop creative answers to the question. “We have employees vote on [the ideas], and we have them do pairwise comparisons on [them],” noted Del Vecchio. “Then the good ideas that bubble up, we do a Shark Tank experience. We have people put forth their idea, present it to a group of people, we vote, and we challenge [them with] questions. If an idea gets thumbs up, we move it forward to a minimum viable product.”

In recognizing that the best ideas will come when the net is cast widely, Del Vecchio recognized that he had to grow more technical talent, which is especially a challenge these days when the war for talent is raging at a level not previously seen. He introduced a program called Code for Good, which identifies employees in non-traditional technology roles and trains them to become developers. “It is a six-month boot camp [including] programming and learning, and then they are out on the floor,” he said. “We make sure that there is a job for them and that they have an opportunity to participate in that.” He has had multiple cohorts go through this program, and the value derived from these newly minted programmers has been profound.

Del Vecchio is building on this success with the development of an Automation for Good program. This is geared at engaging employees who work on transaction-heavy processes and engaging them to help design automation to take the place of some of the most tedious and time-consuming tasks. “Employees could be adding much more value and dealing with much more complex issues if they had the time, but because they are dealing with all these transactional things,” he noted. “Why not allow them to be able to self-automate and identify those tasks that they wish they did not have to do in the first place, and then create a much more fulfilling job for themselves?”

There is a broader vision to this. Del Vecchio and his team are mapping out the customer experience journey to understand where there are opportunities to digitize, and where to introduce self-service capabilities. He and his team hope to automate to the point of facilitating proactive and predictive capabilities. “We are doing that in ways of a digital agent, for example,” said Del Vecchio. “We have installed, using AI and automation, the digital agent capability so you could chat with a digital agent and get claim status or get eligibility of benefits.”

Del Vecchio and his team have also focused on each aspect of the relationship and the journey, whether it is the initial onboarding piece or further along in their relationship with the company. “Can we help customers with decision tools to help them select the right products?” he asked. “Ultimately, when they are on board and they need services, can we provide them with all of those avenues?” A key is to serve clients as they wish to be served. If they want to interact with a chatbot, they can do so through their mobile device. If they prefer the web, they can do that. If they want a mobile app, Guardian Life provides that capability. “We are not there yet but that is how we are looking at it, and we are looking at it across all medium, as well as all segments of that lifecycle engagement,” said Del Vecchio. He and his team have the processes and the ideas to drive continued innovation through Guardian Life on behalf of its customers.

Peter High is President of  Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He has written two bestselling books, and his third, Getting to Nimble, was recently released. He also moderates the Technovation podcast series and speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.

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