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Sun Life’s Chief Architect on culture and upskilling, and their role in DX

Sun Life’s Alice Thomas on how the company’s 50,000-strong team supports a global network of clients. with nimble, tech-forward solutions.

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Pushing a digital transformation (DX) 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.


DX 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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IT spending is a “recession-proof” investment in 2023

Gartner forecasts a 2.4% increase in global IT spending.

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Companies in the US can’t afford to blow their budgets this year in the face of inflation. Just look at Salesforce, who axed nearly 10% of their workforce and ended office leases in an effort to reduce business costs by $3 – 5 billion

Tech giants like Tesla and Google have followed suit, especially for corporate and recruitment staff  — but not for IT spending

Over half of today’s digital leaders plan to spend more on IT in 2023 despite common predictions for tough financial times. 

But how much more?

Gartner comes through with the numbers, citing a 2.4% increase in overall global IT spending for 2023. This was great news for the SaaS industry especially, as software spending will jump a massive 9.3%. 

But this isn’t really news. 

We saw this coming when Google Workspace boasted an impressive 3 billion users at the end of 2021. Another indicator was the massive IT skills shortage that had companies scrambling to recruit developers, programmers, and engineers. 

With more software comes more implementation, strategy, and maintenance. This prompts a 5.5% increase in IT services spending for 2023. We’re talking qualified, experienced IT professionals from programmers and cloud architects to network engineers, information security experts, and analytics professionals. Digital leaders want to have a reliable team to keep the data (and revenue) flowing. 

On top of that, you can expect to see more and more dollars allocated for the latest automation and productivity tech, aka AI software and robots. Efficiency is the name of the game, and companies will maximize it with both skilled IT professionals and robots. 

Still, cloud infrastructure and data center systems will take precedence, with a 0.7% increase in spending this year. Companies need somewhere to sift through, store, and analyze all that data, with insights that 21% of leaders see as driving more revenue.  

Don’t get too excited, though — your annual laptop refresh might take a backseat as companies drop device spending by 5.5%. 

Bottom line? You’ll be on the receiving end of a pumped-up IT budget with the right apps, software, and IT skills. As Gartner Analytics VP John-David Lovelock reminds us? 

“IT spending remains recession-proof.”

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Project management strategies everyone can use to boost productivity

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ClickUp looks at how project managers use certain techniques to boost productivity and how people can apply them to their daily lives.
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With more offices offering hybrid and remote options for employees than ever before, the need for efficiency is essential.

Workplace productivity is declining at the fastest rate in decades, despite employees working more. Experts cite many reasons, ranging from higher financial stress to a plateau following the rise in productivity in the early 2000s. Disruptions in the workday are also inevitable as each new wave of COVID-19 and other illnesses spike.

One way to course-correct is to study how project managers help organizations and apply it to your personal or work-from-home life. Among the crucial skills for project management are time management and critical thinking—two of the most significant barriers to productivity. A successful project manager also understands how to deliver a product or service for a company with limited resources and time.

Another element of project management involves communication, which is crucial for success in any endeavor. Examining communication methods and evaluating areas for improvement can reduce mistakes and help with accountability. Beyond gaining a deeper understanding of your stakeholders, communication boosts productivity.

Adding project management techniques to your daily life has many benefits aside from productivity, especially for people who struggle with time management. For that reason, ClickUp put together a list of techniques used by project managers after analyzing resources from the Project Management Institute. Even though the methods are for business, they can be applied to virtually any task-related setting.

A person writing down a list of their goals.

Jenn Huls // Shutterstock

Set goals and define ‘success’

Success looks different for everyone, and every successful project management team understands this. Before a methodology can begin, the desired result must be clear.

The end goal or measure of success should reflect reality, with input from the entire team, and also not be set in stone. Having a goal gives project managers a way to scale success. If they assess halfway through the project and find the goal unreachable at the current production rate, they will fine-tune the approach and reevaluate the plan.

Three runners jumping hurdles.

Canva

Identify hurdles and risks

At the start of a project, it can seem like the only risk is failing to complete it.

But understanding what risk actually means can help avoid bad outcomes. It is essential to define the risk before you begin.

In an office, talk with your manager or client so you understand the goals and worst-case scenario; understanding both can help you better visualize what to avoid and how to plan for success. At home, this could be a project like a basement renovation, where you must gauge how the construction will put your safety at risk. In project management, a manager would engage stakeholders to assess the risks, so in this situation, a stakeholder might be the contractor. Once the contractor outlines the scope of the work, it will become clearer what the risks are.

A group of business people in an office space.

Rawpixel.com // Shutterstock

Assess stakeholders

Stakeholders are those impacted by a product launch or event, even if they don’t have direct involvement. They can also include the group of people who work on making the project, as well as the end users, customers, or clients for whom the project is intended to reach.

A good project management team will assess each stakeholder’s expectations about the project, such as timelines and deliverables. Stakeholders who are invested in creating the deliverable will need to be happy with the production schedule, quality, and workflow process; they also need to know that the product will satisfy the end user. End users will also need t know that the final product will meet their expectations on what they want to buy or benefit from. 

Assuming you know what stakeholders expect can create disappointment and disagreement, so taking time to assess stakeholder expectations when the project starts helps ensure a smoother, better-managed project down the line. Understanding how everyone will feel the impact of every project stage will avoid conflict. 

 

A person writing in their planner.

Pra Chid // Shutterstock

Employ the proper tools

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “setting yourself up for success,” then you understand the importance of having the right tools.

Project management requires the proper tools for tracking results and creating new approaches. Certain tools make communication between team members easier, so taking the time to find the right tools for you will go a long way in boosting productivity. Make sure to evaluate your team’s workflow and identify inefficiencies so that you can pinpoint the right tools with solutions. For many teams, this often includes a content or project management system to track progress, a better email organization approach, or a messaging app to facilitate communication.

A project manager writing on a white board.

Canva

Assess impact

A project manager with a lot of professional experience understands the impact any event or product launch will have on an organization. PMs can predict how an event launch will affect every industry. They know how outside influences such as the economy or buying behavior can change the outcome of a project.

Impact analysis can help with anything that involves more than one person.

If a team member needs to pitch in on a project or a production schedule needs to be overhauled to account for problems, assess how it will impact the short term. A project manager would determine the financial and reputational cost of disruptions, and the impact of different scenarios that might result from different tactics to solve them.

A scrum master and their teammates meeting.

LightField Studios // Shutterstock

Implement Agile methods

The Agile method is about consistently seeking better ways to achieve goals for an organization in ways that best benefit the team members. This aspect of project management involves constantly checking in with stakeholders and team members to fine-tune a system or process.

If managing a team, this method would include colleagues and managers giving their input. Each time a member chimes in, the Agile method would require tailoring. Because the Agile method emphasizes collaboration and communication, it can be beneficial in a group project to increase productivity.

A person reviewing a tablet with the principles of Six Sigma displayed.

Wright Studio // Shutterstock

Implement the Six Sigma structure

Sigma is a word that comes from the bell curve in statistics, where it refers to the deviation from the center.

Whenever plans go haywire, the best bet is to figure out the deviation from the intended outcome, which is why the Six Sigma approach is popular among project managers. This methodology aims to define the reason for the departure and identify the errors.

Then, after assessing the value chain and involving stakeholders, Six Sigma processes ways for the business to run more efficiently. The ability to highlight weak areas of a project can save time and frustration.

This story originally appeared on ClickUp and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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Leave these 6 phrases behind to sound more confident over email

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Ready to communicate with more confidence? Pyn compiled a list of six commonly used email techniques business professionals should drop for good.
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Hello!

Per the above headline, I thought I would just put together a few tips that may help you try to write better emails. Is there a time that works well for you to do that?

If something about the above sentences feels uncertain or even hesitant, it’s because they include crutches professionals lean on in communicating through email that can be detrimental to everyday work.

To help you avoid these pitfalls in 2023, Pyn compiled a list of six commonly used words and phrases in emails that business professionals should drop for good if they want to be more effective communicators.

Twenty years ago, according to Gallup polling, almost all internet users were likely to say that email improved their lives (it was also pretty much the only thing they used the internet for).

Today that may not exactly be the case as a generation of white-collar workers pushes back against work bleeding into their personal lives via the always-connected nature of the internet. More than half of professionals don’t even feel like they can disconnect while on paid vacation, according to a 2022 survey performed by Glassdoor subsidiary Fishbowl.

Our intense reliance on the medium in today’s world of work is all the more reason to become a more effective communicator. Cut straight to the chase with each message you draft, and hit that send button confidently in 2023 with the following suggestions.

Woman in office composing email.

fizkes // Shutterstock

‘I was hoping to …’

Indirect intent can be an authority killer.

Be clear with the intent of your message to the recipient and avoid using phrases such as “I thought I would …” or “I just wanted to reach out in order to …” or “I was hoping to ….”

Other business communications experts have recommended that emails shouldn’t include the word “just” as it minimizes credibility. This rule can apply to any other sentence construction that belabors the point of the email.

Draft the message and then read the email back to yourself. Ask what the purpose of each line is. If the sentence in which you make your request, issue a reminder, or assign a task includes filler language like this, your email may be stronger without it.

Professionals who study organizational behavior also caution that some cultures—like that of Japan or midwestern U.S. states—prefer, and are adept at, communicating indirectly. Be sure to understand who is on the other end of your message.

Close up of hands typing on laptop computer.

fizkes // Shutterstock

‘What time works best for you?’ and the folly of ‘circling back’

Are you organizing a meeting or looking to get some face time with someone? Avoid asking broadly what time they’re available. It can be helpful to move toward the other person in terms of your effort in the engagement.

When you’re looking to connect with someone away from email, an open-ended question only prolongs the back and forth. It’s a good rule of thumb to treat people you want to work with as though their time is as important, if not more, than your own.

Cut to the chase and suggest a few times that will work with your schedule while showing you’re open to other suggestions.

Person composing email on laptop computer in office.

GaudiLab // Shutterstock

‘Try’

A prolific business mentor once told his pupil: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Ah, wait, that was Yoda who said that. Nonetheless, he had a point that shouldn’t be lost when communicating effectively through email.

There is a lot of trying that happens in the course of business. Sales associates try to woo new customers and clients. Executives try to appease shareholders when the market disagrees with a particular investment. But attitude is everything, and your authoritative nature will stand out when you stop saying you will try to do things.

Using the word try can be interpreted as a half-hearted commitment. Tell people what you intend to do and, if necessary, include any limitations or hurdles you anticipate. And then give it your all.

Man reading email on tablet in cafe.

Jacob Lund // Shutterstock

‘Fine’

Passive aggressiveness is lurking everywhere in today’s age of text messaging, Slack and social media. More than that, people could mistakenly read passive aggression in common phrases you may use regularly.

Words like “fine” and phrases including “per my last email” may be used with the best intentions but can be interpreted negatively by the recipient. The last thing you want the person on the other end of an email to do is assume the wrong tone in your message.

Close view of laptop screen with email inbox open and someone typing.

Tero Vesalainen // Shutterstock

‘I’m connecting you with …’

When connecting people in your network via email be sure to observe the “double opt-in” rule.

Double opt-in means you’re independently getting permission from each party that they have the time, resources, and will to participate in the meeting. Both parties are opting to meet each other before you send the introduction email.

Networking gets deals done. But springing a connection with somebody can be detrimental to the business outcome if both parties aren’t invested beforehand. Avoid wasting everyone else’s time and have those independent conversations with each party ahead of time.

Man reading email on phone.

Canva

‘Re:’

It’s time to leave filler text and basic subject lines in the dust.

Over the last decade, the proliferation of email newsletters has given marketing professionals troves of metrics that show us what makes customers open marketing emails and even what is most effective in getting the recipient to take action.

You can employ similar techniques in crafting subject lines in emails to colleagues and prospective business partners or clients. Adding a call to action in the subject is one way of setting expectations for how the recipient should interact with your message.

Billions of emails are sent through the email marketing platform Mailchimp every month; the company has found that people respond to a sense of urgency in subject lines.

What outcome are you hoping for with the email you’re sending? Does the person on the other end need to make a decision?

Don’t overthink it—state “decision required” or “feedback needed” in front of a brief proposal description separated by a colon or hyphen. This can also be useful when sharing things with colleagues outside of regular business hours. Don’t want them to stress over it? State it up front by tagging “not urgent” in your subject line.

This story originally appeared on Pyn and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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