Between its mobile app, innovation-friendly headquarters, and steady development of new features such as an AI-powered digital assistant, Sun Life Financial can hardly be accused of missing the digital transformation train.

But in case further evidence was needed, the company’s newest executive has officially incorporated digital into the c-suite.

Building on such recent innovations as Ella, its voice-activated digital assistant, and Sun Life Go, which allows Canadians to apply for life insurance online, the Toronto-based financial services organization announced in September that longtime senior vice-president (SVP) of enterprise services and CTO Stevan Lewis had been appointed senior vice-president of digital transformation.

Sun Life Financial SVP of digital transformation Stevan Lewis sees his newly-created role as a natural evolution of the company’s recent digital-first efforts.

“While the role is new, I would say the journey that we’ve been on over the last few years has been leading up to this in many ways,” Lewis tells ITBusiness.ca. “[Appointing a vice-president of digital transformation] is really just about putting a bit more focus on and kind of amplifying our digital efforts.”

One of Lewis’s primary duties in his new position is to expand Sun Life’s partner ecosystem, a job he says the company is ideally prepared for thanks to its existing presence in the “vibrant” startup ecosystems of Waterloo, Toronto, and Montreal, and partnerships with accelerators such as IBM Watson, Toronto’s MaRS and U.S.-based Plug & Play.

He also hopes to collaborate with some of the bigger names in tech, such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, which have already developed much of the technology that Sun Life would like to incorporate into its client services, he says.

Reshaping the future – and past

Another key goal – less glamourous but no less important – is legacy transformation, Lewis says.

“There are a lot of paper-intensive applications heavy procedural flows baked into our industry,” he says, “and so I think spending a chunk of time on legacy transformation will be as important as some of the new and exciting functionalities that we’re bringing to clients through the likes of Ella and Watson.”

Lewis calls his new role a “natural evolution” from his previous work with Sun Life, where he’s now worked for approximately seven years, though he cites one key contrast between his current position and CTO.

“If you think about my former role, it’s one focused on troubleshooting problems after they happened,” he says. “What I find really cool about this role is instead of looking through the rear-view mirror, I’m looking through the windshield, and becoming more predictive… the functions that are aligned under me in this new role are all forward-facing – web, mobile, data, analytics – so that’s certainly exciting for me.”

As SVP of digital transformation, Lewis also has the opportunity to shape Sun Life’s digital agenda, which recently has not only included the likes of Ella and Sun Life Go, but innovations such as robotic process automation (RPA), which is currently being used by about 120 users to collect data on behalf of a client, he says, in addition to improving the efficiency of the company’s service.

“Before, when a client called into the call centre we’d often have to go through a lot of back-end systems to pull the necessary information together, and that could take anywhere between two to five minutes,” he says. “Using RPA technology, we’ve got it down to about 38 seconds right now.”

Crucially, he says, the company is not just changing its client experience but the employee experience, through efforts such as its new global headquarters, which includes a floor dedicated to innovation, and the implementation of Facebook’s Workplace as a collaboration tool.

“I think the company has done a terrific job of pursuing digital over the past 18 months, with projects like RPA and Watson and many more in the hopper,” he says. “And with this role, even more focus is being put on it.”

Speed bumps on the road to digital transformation?

Asked if he sees any challenges on the horizon, Lewis says one of the most vexing has been, and is likely to remain, the same challenge facing many tech-driven companies across Canada – competition for talent.

“There’s a bit of a supply and demand problem,” he says. “We need more people who know that space to help us move the agenda along quickly.”

In its most recent report on the so-called “skills gap,” the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) found that if current trends hold, Canada’s tech industry will find itself with 216,000 unfilled positions by 2021.

Regardless of how it rises to meet that challenge, Lewis firmly believes that Sun Life will continue avoiding the pitfalls which have befallen more stubbornly analogue Canadian companies, noting CEO Dean Connor’s track record of emphasizing the company’s goal of becoming client-centric.

“We’re fully steeped in this digital journey,” Lewis says. “From the top down the message has been: more digital, more data.”

“For some time our vision statement has been to be a client-centric, data-driven organization by 2020,” he continues. “So I think that’s a terrific opportunity for the 22,000 people who work at Sun Life.”

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