‘Innovative, customer driven, tech led’
“When we undertake a transformation, we do it on a truly global scale with technology at the forefront as one of the enablers,” comments Ash Shah, Global Program Director of leading insurer AXA’s Move to the Cloud initiative. This is no mean feat, with the insurer serving 105mn clients across a vast footprint of 62 countries. To aid its technology transformation, AXA has undergone a significant company-wide IT restructure. “We have an ambition to be an innovative, customer-driven, tech led company and we’ve enhanced and modified our IT organisation to support and drive that ambition,” Shah explains. “Technology has become more intrinsic in our business and it’s no longer just a support function – it’s the key enabler for us to continue to innovate and move forward as an organisation.”
As a composite insurer, AXA covers many lines of business including health, life, property and casualty insurance. The French multinational currently spans a mix of growth areas and established markets, and has a significant legacy of looking after customers at those times when they need it most. Shah, who assumed his current role just six months ago, is already a familiar face in Paris where AXA is headquartered. Counted among its numerous locations is the spectacular new Java building which offers a true reflection of AXA’s ambition to modernise a business often seen as traditional. The office itself boasts open space, natural light, and flexible options allowing colleagues to work independently or as a group, sitting or standing – all aimed at promoting innovation and collaboration and showing, through colourful posters and games areas, that insurance is far from an old-fashioned career choice.
AXA’s staff are adapting well to the new working environment which so much investment and thought has gone into. Colleagues do not have a strict dress code – with some stating this makes them feel more valued for their skills and output than their appearance – and have plenty of opportunities to socialise by playing pool or enjoying coffee together. Shah joins us at this new Paris office having spent three days with AXA’s Dubai Gulf business discussing the company’s transformation across that region. “It’s pushing all parts of our organisation into that journey and bringing them onboard. It takes time and effort and engagement – but once you do that, you can see the end results. We’re monitoring, and can see we’re making good progress now,” he enthuses.
In its ambition to become tech led, AXA is pushing technology across all sectors and geographies with both a strong global vision and local knowledge. “Usually, we have a central team but we listen to the requirements and needs of our different business units and make sure they are a part of that journey. We measure compliance, performance and KPIs at both a centralised level and a local entity and business level,” says Shah. “It’s also important to understand the various cultures AXA operates in and the pace and size at which they can make changes.” For example, AXA’s companies in growth markets will focus on establishing a presence while well-established entities might focus on innovation to remain competitive.
A global, customer-centric transformation
Currently, one of AXA’s key areas of development – and the element for which Shah is responsible – is its ‘Move to the Cloud’, whereby the business will come away from legacy technology and store and manage data on private and public clouds. This is a key strategic initiative which AXA is taking on for two key reasons. “One is that we want to modernise and update our technology infrastructure,” says Shah. “The second is that we really want to exploit new technology innovation – such as artificial intelligence (AI), chatbots and image recognition – which we wouldn’t be able to do with our existing systems and processes.”
For Shah, and for AXA, a key feature of cloud technology is the speed at which it allows an organisation to innovate. “It gives us business agility, flexibility and speed to market which is much harder in traditional IT methods. In addition, the cloud enables the collaboration that is so key to a global business. As we deploy something in one country, we can replicate that quickly in multiple countries,” Shah explains. “We therefore end up with a consistent product which we can enhance and change – and those changes can be rolled out across numerous entities and organisations far more quickly than in the past.”
Why is AXA undertaking such a significant investment? “Firstly, it’s for customer experience. We deal with customers through an omnichannel process: they need to have consistent experience.” For example, customers may wish to deal with a claim over the phone and then switch to live chat. “We need to be able to receive data and respond to it in all manners, shapes and forms. Customers today are expecting a different experience of working with a global insurer,” Shah adds, citing omnichannel as a key driver. “We need to be able to respond to this change in a customer-centric manner.”
Every technology investment AXA makes involves extensive thought into how it will impact the customer. “We make sure there’s really a business driver and value for what we’re investing and innovating in. We then start with a proof of concept, idea and trial before we really push something.” AXA’s cloud program is a prime example of this. “We have to build new features, new products and new ideas onto the platforms. There we have the voice of the customer to drive the demand and the prioritisation process. Then their voice is heard. They drive the change agenda.”
A team effort
With the agenda driven by customers, it’s important that each and every member of AXA’s 160,000-strong colleague base is on board in order to promote the best service to every customer. Managing a significant change, and the shift in culture it brings, across such a mammoth organisation is vital to make things work all the way to the end customer. “We foster a strong change management process where we make sure we communicate, evangelise and onboard our colleagues in all parts of the organisation,” says Shah. “That’s one of our key success factors in implementing a lasting change.”
This is not always easy given that AXA is dealing with new technologies and working across a plethora of different locations, but Shah maintains that it’s possible with a combination of training and open communication. This is not just looked at in terms of individual jobs, but in terms of the key part each employee plays in AXA’s journey as a global organisation. The transformation so far has not just been successful in terms of IT, but far beyond this, including the people and culture at the company. “We have an extensive change training program for all of our colleagues where we’re working extensively to make sure they are all aware of what the cloud journey is, what AXA is undertaking, and why. It’s also important the program has the sponsorship of our management committee, and it is discussed and agreed– which then helps cascade the information and messages around our program.”
AXA’s move to the cloud involves not just thousands of employees, but a network of strong partners too – and all must be aware of the company’s long-term vision. “We are not technical experts in all domains and areas we’re undertaking as part of our move to the cloud journey,” Shah admits. “So the relationship we build with our suppliers – and I would call them partners rather than suppliers – is very important to us.” AXA has worked with some of the biggest names in tech as part of maintaining a secure yet efficient cloud transformation – from IBM with its private cloud provider to AWS and Microsoft Azure for its public cloud journey. Innovation projects have also been supported by Google Cloud. Other important delivery and consulting partners include Capgemini and Deloitte who are also supporting AXA on this journey.
Shah makes it very clear that AXA isn’t just buying off-the-shelf solutions but is growing alongside each of its key partners in a sustainable relationship. “We’re undertaking a multiyear commitment. They’re on this journey with us.” Another element the above names have in common is famously secure service – something which is paramount for any organisation, but especially within the insurance industry. “A few years ago, the reason people didn’t move to the cloud was security. Now, organisations are actually moving to the cloud due to the security provided by the likes of IBM and Microsoft Azure. They have some of the best security experts out there. Their business is built on secure, trustable platforms – they would be out of business if their platforms were not secure.”
Handling the kind of sensitive data AXA deals with on a daily basis means security is something Shah and his team don’t take lightly. “We need to ensure we have robust processes on our side. We are selective with what we put into the cloud, especially from a compliance and regulatory purpose. Cybersecurity is one of the key drivers of this program,” Shah explains, adding that the global insurance behemoth has a strong legacy to maintain. “Our brand value is particularly important – when you’re buying insurance, you’re also buying a trusted brand.”
A future in the cloud
Following AXA’s success on its journey to the cloud thus far, Shah believes that other organisations will follow suit – or risk being left in the dust. “Cloud technology is going to significantly disrupt the insurance sector, and the insurance value chain,” he predicts. “Cloud technologies and Insuretech partners will look at different parts of the value chain and come up with innovative ideas about how they can accelerate a certain process – such as claim notification or risk modelling.”
Across the finance and insurance spheres, the rise of technology leaves many more traditional organisations, such as AXA, concerned about the rise of fintech and insurtech startups – but Shah believes these shouldn’t be perceived as a threat. “Parts of our value chain will continue to be disrupted by cloud partners, innovators or insurtech companies who will come in with solutions and ideas which don’t have the resistance to change that larger organisations have to deal with,” he comments.
However, an insurer like AXA which is prepared to innovate and stay at the forefront of new technologies can only stand to benefit. “We need to embrace this as an organisation, look at our value chain, and see where we can utilise insurtech organisations to streamline, to be more efficient, more innovative, faster, and to deliver the change our customers are looking for. We work with and invest in startups where we can leverage their technologies through our AXA Next organisation.”
Along Shah’s journey to cloud transformation across the globe, the change will need to be continuously driven at all levels. “Hopefully we’re getting to a point where this communication and buy-in is becoming one of our key success factors. We measure that through KPIs. We’re at the point where we’re starting to become successful in promoting our program and moving forward with the migration– but we still have a long way to go.” Indeed, Shah cites the pace at which his team has accelerated buy-in across AXA. “In the last three of four months, we’ve seen more momentum than we saw in 15 months. That in itself is quite rewarding. We’ve seen the adoption and deployment of lots of our applications on the cloud. Momentum is building and it will just get better and better.”