Great Eastern to tap shared services

IT head Ng Koh Wee shares the insurance company's plans to reinvest the way IT services are delivered.
Written by Isabelle Chan, Contributor
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Ng Koh Wee, executive vice president of IT, Great Eastern Life Assurance, says the group plans to adopt a shared services model

Q. What are Great Eastern Life's IT priorities over the next 12 months?
Ng: There are two levels of priorities. One is at the Great Eastern Life (GEL) group level, and the other is at a local level, and I'll talk about it from the perspective of the Singapore business.

At the group level, the key business priority next year and the years ahead is to expand our presence in the Asian region. This is expected to leverage the capabilities we have in the mature parts of the business in Singapore and Malaysia. IT will be part of the business franchise that GEL will bring to each of the emerging markets we enter. As a result, the IT department will have to build the capability and capacity to support this expansion strategy. At the same time, the expansion also presents an opportunity for our IT department to transform itself to run differently in the future. Besides the larger scale of operation, the business expansion will be giving us new opportunities to make IT a shared service across the whole group.

"The cost of doing business in Singapore remains a major concern."
-- Ng Koh Wee, executive vice president of IT,
Great Eastern Life

At the local Singapore level, there are obviously more immediate challenges that we will need to face. First, we will modernize and streamline our legacy policy administration systems. Come next year, we should have successfully cut over our legacy policy administration system to a new system that we have been developing for some time. We expect there will be quite a bit of work to ensure the system is stabilized after the rollout. During this time, we will also start to plan the next phase of this initiative, which is to streamline the whole group's policy administration systems in each country that we operate in, based on this new corporate standard.

Second, we will need to update our CRM (customer relationship management) system. For the part that is directly customer-facing, we will certainly need to bring it up to date with our contact center. This comes after the successful deployment of our point-of-sale system called Electronic Mobile Advisory Solutions (EMAS). In the backroom, we will also need to enhance our business intelligence in relation to understanding customers better and delivering products that are relevant to the market.

Third, the cost of doing business in Singapore remains a major concern. The regional expansion of the business allows us to consider moving certain parts of IT, as well as certain business operations, to low-cost economies. The preparation for this should be in full swing next year. The initial focus will be on the data center and the overall infrastructure, but certain aspects of application development services might also be considered at a later stage.

Finally, again from a cost perspective, we will need to look into whether other applications--besides the policy administration system--can be streamlined. This will ensure that we don't have to maintain duplication of human resources, which would functionally be the same business application.

What are some of the key IT projects that are being trialed or implemented?
I am afraid that quite a few of our projects next year are not exactly technology or technology-enablement projects, but "soft" projects that enable the above directions. I will share some of the more significant projects that the IT department is either already undertaking or will be undertaking.

The first one is the migration of our legacy mainframe-based policy administration systems into our new Financial Products Management System (FPMS).

We are also planning to establish a regional data center, which will be the shared services center for our infrastructure and data center operations. Another area that we are considering is the feasibility of establishing a regional application development center as a shared service, for application development and maintenance. We will begin to also put in place various initiatives which will support or enable the establishment of shared-service centers. These will include designing and implementing charge-back, human resource policies that will allow geographical mobility of key human resources, reorientation of skills, cultures and values in the team, deploying process and technology standards and tools.

And, perhaps, a significant business-driven project will be a joint contact center for both Singapore and Malaysia, as part of our ongoing focus to improve customer service.

What will be GEL's biggest challenge and how do you plan to overcome it?
If you are referring to the challenges to IT rather than to the business, I would say that for us, there will be three key challenges.

The first one is cost, which is still the biggest issue. Part of this is because of our legacy systems and the organization. A major change management program will have to be in place to transform the IT department. You can already see some of these in the initiatives that I mentioned earlier.

The human resource shortfall, both in terms of the numbers and the right competencies, is the other challenge. This is not only apparent in Singapore, but also in Malaysia. Yes, admittedly, China has a lot of human resources but, unfortunately, the overall maturity in the skills and relevant experience is still relatively low. Job hopping is also still very common. Nevertheless, we will need to explore ways to tap this resource pool and see how to manage these talent issues, perhaps, through training and strong institutionalization of our processes and standards.

The third challenge lies in the differing paradigms of insurance regulators in the region--in the way that they regulate the financial services industry in each country. Admittedly, this has to do with the relative maturity of the industry in various markets, but the different models impose real constraints on how far we can achieve our shared-services strategy, distorting this somewhat to a less-than-optimal point.

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