Mergers challenge IT's savoir faire

It's challenging enough managing the IT operations of a large financial services organization but add a merger to the mix and that's when the real fun begins.

Heading up the challenge at the world's seventh largest insurer, Aviva, is IT delivery manager Kevin Sharkie. Although the name is new, Aviva has been operating in Australia for more than 100 years and was previously known as Norwich Union Australia; the name change brought the local operation in line with its global UK parent company, Aviva Plc. Locally, Aviva together with its sister company Portfolio Partners, manages or administers more than $18.2 billion in funds for 300,000 customers.

Since joining Aviva in 2003, Sharkie has managed the performance of the company's all-important Funds Under Administration system, taking it to a service availability exceeding 99.5 percent from a base of less than 95 percent. And all within just six months.

But there are more challenges ahead for Sharkie given Aviva’s merger plans and aggressive IT targets including a network and infrastructure repair strategy.

“Aviva has two business streams, the life insurance company from Norwich Union and funds administration which is the Navigator brand. The challenge is to get these two systems to operate effectively under one umbrella. They are very different systems," he said. To do this Sharkie will bring the mainframe into the server world.

“The life company uses a mainframe system that is more than 30 years old, whereas the funds systems are only 10 years old. I need to merge the two by providing a common process and support regime," he said.

Aviva Australia will not be replacing its DB2, OS390 mainframe system, but creating a feed into its Sybase, Forte server.

Sharkie has some 50 people dedicated to this project and expects it will take quite some time to complete.

“I have been committed to this project since June 2003 and expect it will continue for another 12 to 18 months. Every day we see an improvement in some way, but we still have a long way to go," he said.

The impetus for embarking on this major IT project within Aviva is to support the greater corporate vision.

Sharkie said there is an intense internal campaign under way focusing on customer care and merging these two systems will allow a more customer-centric view of the organization.

The good news is, the consolidation of these systems will reduce operational costs significantly.

"When we began this project, we had up to four ways of managing change which posed many difficulties. Maintaining two completely independent systems is costly with two sets of infrastructures, two separate support teams and two change management teams. Our efforts will create a common foundation for strategies, services and systems," he said.

Aviva’s business is largely based on an Advisor Network. It’s the IT department’s job to ensure the company's 2000 field agents and additional call centre operators have access to current and meaningful information to assist them in the sales of life insurance, risk protection, shares management and corporate superannuation.

"Much of this is back-office based. We need to push this information to the call centres and on to advisors' desktops along with feeding back transactions handled at the front end. The merging of two systems, EndLink and N-Able, will provide a customer-centric view as well as speed up the through-put times," Sharkie said.

Aviva Australia’s IT strategy is aimed at serving its local needs.

"We always leverage off whatever procurement capability has been negotiated at a global level," he said, adding that there are a number of applications where discounts have been accessed from global buying.

"[However,] the decisions in terms of IT strategy and what we do from an application perspective are made locally. There are, however, some global initiatives at an application level which are predominantly related to financial reporting, global networking and Internet sites."

Applications in global arrangements include a shared a link with internal communication provided by Lotus Notes and the GFTP (Global Funds Transition Program) used to roll back all the key financial information to the parent company on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis. Another challenge Sharkie faces is attempting to tie other applications into the overall corporate vision and IT strategy.

“Like the majority of companies in the 90s we tried most technologies, and in some cases the technology has stuck. This is also a huge challenge. We have to fit all technologies within the overall IT strategy under a common services and methodology umbrella. This will allow me to take the technology that we have purchased over the years out in to the organization. Although we have not done a lot of activity around this as yet, it is something we need to do.”

Aviva has strict guidelines in place to ensure all IT decisions feed back into the overall corporate vision and objectives.

“Every month we have a priorities forum where we meet at an executive level. Effectively we use a gating process for all IT proposals before funding is identified and budget is approved," he said.

"We assess all proposals put forward to the forum based on the business requirement definition, project charters and business cases. This allows a means for the executive level and senior management to collectively have a say across the organization.

"This is an extremely important process to prioritize, get approval and get commitment and time frames." Sharkie is thrilled that the IT efforts are on track.

“We are already seeing the benefits of projects to date that have created cost savings and streamlined processes. We are moving very fast to put relevant information in front of advisors to give us the competitive edge.

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