Monday, May 24, 2010

Organizational Intelligence at Aviva

A few weeks ago, I spotted a quote in Computer Weekly from Toby Redshaw, global CIO of Aviva. Speaking about Aviva's cloud-based Web 2.0 platform - which includes an intramural social network, a global knowledge management solution, a collaboration suite and a sophisticated content management/intranet - Toby asserted that the results were spectacular in terms of improving workers' access to expertise, ideas and solutions, and described this as a general increase in the firm's cumulative IQ.


Source: Ian Grant, Aviva uses Web 2.0 to build corporate culture with global reach (Computer Weekly, Feb 2010)


Given my ongoing researches into organizational intelligence, I was of course very interested to follow this up, and recently I managed to grab an hour of Toby's time to learn more about Aviva's experience and his future plans.

For a global corporation like Aviva, the online world provides a virtual equivalent of the company "campus" that emerged in the 1980s, and is still popular with technology companies like Microsoft and Vodafone. A physical campus can be an efficient clustering of co-workers, or it can be a confusing sprawl - see Brian Lam's personal impressions of Microsoft and Apple, Gizmodo March 2008. But in any case, a physical campus is limited to co-located workers, and does not provide a solution for a globally distributed enterprise such as Aviva.

The Aviva Web 2.0 platform provides horizontal connectivity across the globe, helping to integrate the global intelligence of the firm. The benefits are as follows
  • Consistency ("One Aviva, twice the value").
  • Reducing cycle time for decision-making and problem-solving (cut "waste"). Improving the quality and efficiency of decision-making.
  • Reducing the innovation cycle time (cut "uninnovation"). Innovation involves not only solving problems, but getting the solutions out into the mainstream.
  • Reducing communication time, e.g. for disseminating top-down management vision.
I asked about the platform's role in picking up weak signals from the environment. Clearly there are specialist functions within any large insurance company (investment management, risk management, security and fraud) that need highly sophisticated mechanisms for monitoring the environment, with rapid sense-and-respond, especially from a financial perspective. While the platform doesn't replace these mechanisms, it provides an efficient and integrated way of communicating insights within each functional specialism.

For more general weak signals (for example, picking up new kinds of customer demand or customer service issue), there may be a greater role for non-specialists to contribute observations and ideas, which might (if repeated and confirmed around the organization) lead to new opportunities for product or process innovation, with a much more generalized notion of "sense-and-respond". Although the Aviva platform does not yet support this kind of bottom-up analysis, Toby sees an opportunity to bring more traditional business intelligence and analytics into the platform, which would allow data mining and number crunching capability to be distributed more efficiently around the organization. Like many organizations, Aviva identifies three levels of business intelligence user. For most people, business intelligence merely means having a reasonably comprehensive picture of what-is-going-on, using dashboards and similar devices offering multiple views but with fairly static schemas. For business number crunchers, the platform could help to bring some coherence and order into a turbulent sea of spreadsheets. And serious data mining and statistical analysis would remain the responsibility of a relatively small handful of experts. but with the power to collect data from a larger and more distributed pool, and then disseminate their findings more effectively around the company. In the first instance, the challenge is not to extend business intelligence capabilities as such, but to use and share the existing capabilities more efficiently, and reduce duplicated analytic effort.

Critical to the success of the platform is its ability to integrate traditional knowledge management and communication with the business process itself, so that the platform is not a stand-alone adjunct to the day job. The key here is to integrate the platform with BPM tools, both as a construction framework to allow process-related problems to be solved collaboratively, and to allow the platform to inject decision-making and problem-solving support into the operational process. My understanding from Toby is that this is very much work-in-progress.

A platform like this cannot be done on the cheap, and Aviva has already invested millions of dollars in the technology alone. Over time the technology will get cheaper, but the effective use of the platform is learning-intensive, and Toby believes that 12-18 months' worth of cultural change gives Aviva a considerable competitive advantage, which late adopters will find it hard to catch up. Early evidence for the perceived value of the platform can be measured in terms of the volume of use -  the number of forums (running into tens of thousands, some short-term single issue, others more ongoing), and the amount of time spent per employee using the platform. This usage represents a vote of confidence in the usefulness of the platform. In the future, it may be possible to measure the business value in more direct ways.

One of the difficulties managing this kind of technology is knowing how much to spend on ongoing improvements. There is a continuous stream of innovations from suppliers, as well as a constant wishlist from the more technically enthusiastic sectors of the workforce, and it is often hard if not impossible to see the business value of any particular improvement in isolation. Furthermore, Toby points out that there can often be a huge variation in the prices charged by different vendors for systems with broadly simmilar business benefits, and says that procurement skills and experience are essential.

It is a common cliche that radical initiatives require senior management support and commitment. But with this kind of platform, it is not enough for senior management just to sign the cheques and act as cheerleaders (acknowledging and praising achievements and those responsible for them) - they also need to be seen using the platform themselves. Thus the CEO and CIO blogs are featured on the Aviva platform home page, giving particular prominance not only to the content of their ideas but to their commitment to the process and their belief in its value. (Obviously if senior management blogging were to become more and more infrequent, this might send a negative message to the rest of the workforce.)

Is this venture limited to Aviva's own workforce? Based on Bill Joy's remark "Not all smart people work for you", which Toby quoted, there are clearly opportunities to extend this platform into the Aviva ecosystem - for example external providers and channel partners, one day even perhaps customers - thus leveraging the intelligence of the ecosystem as a whole. There are some obvious challenges here - not just technological but commercial - so this isn't going to happen overnight, but it would undoubtedly be an interesting development for any company of Aviva's reach.

In any case, regardless of these speculative future visions, Aviva is clearly embarked on a promising and ambitious journey of systematically improving its organizational intelligence, and I look forward to following its progress in the future.

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