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CIO interview: Monique Shivanandan, Aviva

Aviva’s CIO, Monique Shivanandan, talks agile working, digital disruption and changing the culture of a complex 300-year-old company

In Aviva’s recently opened digital garage, located near London’s Silicon Roundabout, CIO Monique Shivanandan explains the company’s current shift towards digital.

The 300-year-old insurance firm is using IT to push forward a change in the organisation’s culture, and the digital garage is a representation of this shift.

Previous roles held by Shivanandan have been transformational, and she is applying this experience in her role at Aviva as it adopts agile development methods across the business to keep up with its evolving customer base.

Why agile is the answer

“In IT we’re changing the ways of working from waterfall to agile,” says Shivanandan.

Adopting agile has been the first step in turning the ship, and now approximately 70% of Aviva’s IT work is performed in an agile manner.

Not all of this is taking place in the digital garage – the transformation is taking place across the entire business.

But switching from traditional methods of working, where there is pressure to get it right first time, to an agile approach, where staff are encouraged to fail fast and learn”, requires time and effort. Agile coaches are being used across the business to train employees in methodologies, standup meetings and ways of working.

“Hopefully it will start permeating,” says Shivanandan.

Developing ideas

The garage was built as an “office-less organisational structure” to promote a new way of working and sharing ideas, and to place the firm “in the neighbourhood” of the Silicone Roundabout startups that are innovating in the same way and which might make good partnerships in the future.

There is a mixture of teams in the space, with two or three teams thinking about creative products nine to 12 months in the future, others working on how to integrate with startups and others working on mobile and web products and services.

The team, an extension of the Aviva insurance brand, has a callcentre in the garage to reflect how the wider organisation and its work is affected by the products and services the IT teams create.

“It’s great ideas that win here,” says Shivanandan. “What IT people really want to do is build things people enjoy using.”

She explains that agile works well for IT teams because when working in two-week sprints, feedback on the product is faster, so products can be tweaked or fixed and the engineer knows how what they’ve made has been received.

“They’re working because they really like to see things built – that’s why agile really works,” says Shivanandan.

Changing the culture

By adopting an agile nature, the business is hoping to shift the internal culture of the organisation towards flexibility.

“The idea is this is more about a culture shift than it is about coming up with great ideas,” says Shivanandan. “Obviously, we want to get great ideas too.”

We’re trying to have the people who build the products think like the people who buy the products
Monique Shivanandan, Aviva

The long history of the company has left a lot of legacy behind, both inside and outside the IT infrastructure, which is what the firm is trying to change by adopting agile.

As with the banking industry, there are startups just around the corner from Aviva which could innovate an insurance product aimed at the modern audience, so Aviva is trying to stay ahead of the curve.

Developing products that cater to the customer

Shivanandan is very passionate both about technology and about transformation, and says the best way to make sure the firm is going in the right direction is to ask the customers how and what they want.

The garage space has areas where customers are brought in and asked about new products to gain insight on “how our customers feel as people who buy insurance”.

“We have a legacy environment, and the products and services that we sell are complicated,” she says. “We can’t change some of the things about our products and services, but we can change how we interact with those back ends and how we offer them to our customers.”

Shivanandan points out that the next generation who are more content doing everything on smartphones will soon become Aviva’s target market: “Eventually they are going to be our customers. We have to change our culture to match the culture of the future buyers of our products and services.”

To shift both the legacy culture and the legacy IT, RESTful application programming interfaces (APIs) are being put in place to connect to portals, and some of the firm’s back end will be modernised – without altering the complex systems behind the complex products.

Hackathons are also held at the garage, both as a team-building exercise and to promote the agile way of working.

“We’re trying to have the people who build the products think like the people who buy the products,” Shivanandan concludes.

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Agile is a good software development practice, and I believe it can be more efficient than a waterfall approach, but it's not the answer to everything. You need good, talented, motivated employees and agile teams that are formed of people who are empowered and who work well together. That's what it comes down to.