In a growing company, we are all focused on customer experience, as we should be. One of our customers is our internal team and we need to create an amazing experience for them. In this tight labor market, the “war for talent” continues to rage and our secret sauce to success is our people. We need the right technology in place so our secret sauce can do what they do best – think ahead, look around corners and execute those plans.When we think about financial systems at a 170-year-old insurance company, it feels like an archeological dig. There are layers of tools, processes and ways of thinking that have evolved over the sands of time. Each layer is a new discovery and just like an archeological dig, we need brushes to get underneath the layers.The “rip and replace” approach will not work, as many fragile processes could breakdown underneath.
Sounds complex? It is, but we need to start thinking about simplicity. It is hard to imagine how we can turn the tide when we are working with hours of manual data movement and thousands of lines of code that feed into our financial projections and analysis. We have an internal saying at National Life – “simple is hard”.
The core to simplicity for financial systems was “data”. To be honest, the investments in our data platform didn’t start in the financial departments. Like most companies we focused on improving operational abilities with data. We made strategic investments in a blueprint for a Data Platform that included three components: Data Availability, Data Normalization and Data Accuracy. The most important aspect of the platform wasn’t the tools, processes or technology, but the talent required to execute the roadmap. These components were part of a broader plan to improve our overall data platform. As the functionality rolled out, we were pleasantly surprised to find how much opportunity there was in our finance function. Our Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) team quickly saw the benefit of leveraging the platform. They simplified our decades old reporting formats into a modern dashboard that allowed users numerous drill-down capabilities and visualization tools. Because we started with simplicity in mind and allowed the business to see the value through referential integrity and ease of implementation, the entrepreneurial spirits opened up and ideas started to pour in. The next round consisted of tackling the automation of our financial data in the planning process. Previously the process entailed a tremendous amount of manual data movement and manipulation from our actuarial systems to our planning team and ultimately to our accounting system. Our FP&A team would spend 3-4 weeks working with excel spreadsheets to extract and format thousands of lines of data that would feed into our projections and analysis. Using the data platform, the teams were able to automate 80% of the data movement in the process and eliminated hundreds of labor hours of our precious actuarial and finance functions. We have been able to give some of our financial analysts who already have strong data skills the ability to implement these workflows without a whole lot of IT intervention. The traditional days of creating large projects, with business analysts and developers are behind us. We are now starting to leverage cloud elasticity to significantly improve the performance timing of our analysis. Containerizing our complex financial applications and leveraging shared computing power has reduced days of computing time to hours with the ability to leverage multiple cloud environments if needed. We are not a finished product, this is just the start. As we continue to think simply, focus and execute, there are many opportunities that lie in front of us where we can “rinse and repeat” to see the benefits. Getting the teams to understand our data seems more important than just moving it. We believe our efforts to automate and simplify will allow our secret sauce, our people, to be more effective and efficient in the future. For now, transforming our financial systems is about building a new city on top of the buried ones without disturbing what exists underneath.