James Henderson

Leading with conviction to innovate insurance

At the height of COVID-19 in the Philippines – amid rising cases and ongoing lockdowns – the argument for digital transformation was indisputable.

Like many others across the world, this was a country in need of a technology overhaul as businesses – now armed with a mandate to innovate irrespective of industry sector – outlined revised strategies and enhanced go-to-market agendas.

After the chaos of 2020, the digital direction of the nation became clear in 2021 – time for the Philippines to transform. A noble cause upon which all technology and business leaders could endorse.

But rhetoric and results are different.

“I always had this fear during the pandemic that people and businesses were using the phrase digital transformation simply as a ‘cool’ statement,” recalled Carlos Santos, Chief Transformation and Technology Officer at AXA Philippines.

Carlos Santos (AXA Philippines)

A statement that Santos – in looking back on a turbulent period for organisations of all shapes and sizes – suspected would result in huge volumes of technology debt and faulty execution.

“Now the true leaders have to step up to show the value of digital transformation,” he advised. “This is the best time to drive true transformation.”

Santos joined AXA Philippines in July 2022, tasked with spearheading innovation efforts at one of the largest and fastest growing life insurance companies in the country.

The switch in industry arrived following almost five years leading the technology strategy of JG Summit in investment management, alongside more than 20 years in manufacturing at Proctor & Gamble and Universal Robina.

“The insurance market is still in the stage of relationship driven business in which sales are mostly through agents and distributors,” Santos explained. “They are who we trust to protect what matters to us most as customers.

“In the future, we want this interaction to be strengthened through harnessing the power of data, insights and enabling tools.”

Igniting innovation efforts

Manila-based Santos’ assessment of a changing market mirrors recent observations by Reynaldo Regalado, who was recently appointed as new Insurance Commission Chief in the Philippines.

For Regalado, the insurance industry must embrace new technologies to ensure more Filipinos receive access to “needed protection and coverage”.

Citing digitalisation as a key driver, Regalado urged life and non-life insurance firms to take advantage without delay given the “important role” the sector plays in generating economic growth.

“We need to provide wider and more inclusive insurance coverage, taking advantage of new technologies to make financial products more accessible, innovative and efficient,” said Regalado, when speaking to The Philippine Star in April.

A strengthening desire for transformation locally is also reflected globally, with worldwide IT spending on insurance expected to increase by 7.9% in 2023, reaching $208.4 billion in USD.

According to Gartner, spending is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.1% during 2022 to 2027, driven primarily by a rise in IT services and software deployment – at a CAGR of 9.3% and 12.1% respectively.

Within this context, improving customer experience (CX) and operational excellence stand tall as the driving forces behind the majority of insurance-backed digitalisation initiatives.

“Economic stressors are making companies refocus and shift directions to fill gaps which have existed for many years,” noted Kimberly Harris-Ferrante, Distinguished Analyst at Gartner.

“Insurers need more customer data, including more behavioural and preferential data, to effectively execute digital business strategies aimed at cross-sell / upsell, panoptic personalisation, dynamic customer engagement and revenue growth through new products / service.”

In response, Santos said AXA Philippines is focused on enabling all key stakeholders through digital transformation.

“This is achieved by leveraging solutions to ensure productivity of our distributors in sales while delighting our customers through our applications, tools and internal efficiencies which is underpinned by world-class architecture,” he outlined.

“We carry this out with an encompassing vision of a data-driven organisation through the use of business intelligence as a critical competitive enabler.”

Alternatively however, new digital demands are also emphasising the need to make foundational enhancements to capitalise on the market potential ahead.

“In 2023, creating the right technical foundation for agility and openness will be targeted, along with replacing legacy assets that create a talent and investment drain on the organisation,” Harris-Ferrante explained.

According to Santos – who is responsible for all business and technology project execution at AXA Philippines – such changing market dynamics within the insurance sector is also redefining the role of a CIO in the context of transformation. This is no longer a ‘keep the lights on’ remit, rather a mandate to adapt and innovate at speed.

“As a leader, you have to be flexible,” Santos shared. “I always use the crawl-walk-run framework and believe that when you start a transformation, you have to begin by first focusing on the basics of the now.

“This prioritises fixing current issues and stabilising the foundation with the right processes, systems and tools.”

But fixing the foundation takes time with a need to ensure process, people and technology strategies are in place. This is in addition to the added layer of complexity created by not having the benefit of a clean technology slate to work with, balancing ongoing challenges with a need for innovation.

“Then as you progress, you can move to a walk and ultimately a run stage where the basics are fixed,” Santos recommended. “This is when you can have more focus on innovation and future roadmaps.”

At AXA Philippines, such philosophy is playing out through a constant commitment to digital improvement and enhancement. In other words, progression armed with pragmatism.

From the beginning of the customer journey, the company offers an online Financial Needs Analysis (eFNA) service via the Coach Finn platform alongside its traditional face-to-face FNA services.

This is in addition to the development of Emma, an application which serves as every customer’s digital insurance and wellness partner, offering always availability to help users via a wide range of services and resources.

“We want to grow the business through impactful products that drive our purpose of helping human progress by protecting what matters,” Santos added. “As a result, our employees will be highly engaged and the company will live up to the commitments to our stakeholders.”

Leading from the front

In an executive career spanning more than 25 years, Santos is well-placed to document the changing attributes of successful modern-day technology leaders.

Whether CIO or CTO, business acumen is more critical than ever with the ability to collaborate with different stakeholders now considered fundamental. Combining strategy with a solid track record of execution should also not be underestimated.

“Last but not least,” Santos added. “You must have the ability to handle huge organisations in terms of moving them to a common vision while driving business results.”

Dissecting such a role into personas, Santos acknowledged the need to:

  • Innovate: Spearhead transformative change within the business as a leading figure of innovation
  • Strategise: Collaborate closely with the wider organisation to align IT strategies to key business objectives
  • Modernise: Modernise legacy systems, processes and technologies to lay foundation for future transformation

“You have to identify with each one at certain points in time when executing your vision,” Santos advised. “Personally, I start by being a strategist as this is very critical in starting the process of driving organisational results.”

Only then can IT leaders embrace the modernisation phase as they attempt to lay the foundations for future transformation.

“Then you can become an innovator,” referenced Santos, mirroring his ‘crawl-walk-run’ framework. “Repeat the cycle again as needed but hopefully over time, less on the modernise part as you make solid strides ensuring your foundation is in place.”

For Santos, vision should always be long-term but occupy a realistic sense of the now.

“When I started this new role it was important to set a stage of where we wanted to go while assessing the current challenges and building a roadmap to reach the vision,” he stated.

Supporting this approach must be constant communication to remind employees of the journey ahead, designed to ensure the entire organisation is heading towards the same united vision.

“Set a clear direction of where you want to go with one eye on reality and another eye on the opportunities,” Santos shared. “Often I see that executives only do one and fail on the other because either it’s not grounded on what can be done or it’s too short sighted a vision that has to change immediately within 1-2 years.”


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