A string of acquisitions and mergers over the past few years turned Aviva into the world's fifth-largest insurance company, but left a heady brew of different corporate cultures, brand loyalties and IT systems that needed melding into a strong, unified corporate entity with a robust service delivery system.
Aviva's global CIO, Toby Redshaw, turned to a cloud-sourced Microsoft product to address some these issues. In the process he reconfirmed his support of cloud computing and the benefits of Web 2.0 inside the enterprise, where it can make a real operational and financial difference.
"Our vision is 'One Aviva, twice the value'," says Redshaw. With assets of around £350bn and sales of £50bn that's a tall order for the company, but it had to find a way to weld its people together to stand a chance of delivering it.
Redshaw says, "The scope of our ambition was vast. We thought if we delivered 80% of it we'd have justified it." The cloud project did somewhat better.
The trick was to create a platform that included an intramural social network, a global knowledge management solution, a collaboration suite and a sophisticated content management/intranet based on a Microsoft Web 2.0 software platform served from the 'cloud'.
The social network allowed staff to discover where the company's experts and expert knowledge resided, to collaborate with each other more effectively, and to use a raft of business applications to do their work.
"The issue was how not to kill their capacity to innovate, but to co-ordinate it, so we've effectively built an internet-based knowledge management platform for the whole company," says Redshaw.
A veteran of similar application development projects, Redshaw knew it was typically an 18-month to two-year project. A small global team at Aviva and Microsoft delivered it worldwide in 142 days at half the estimated cost of a more traditional project.
"The timetable was painful for everyone, but we got it done," he says. The results were spectacular in terms of improving workers' access to expertise, ideas, solutions and, in general, increased the firm's cumulative IQ, Redshaw says.
"One of our people in the Melbourne office was having a problem with a pretty complex issue. Someone in our York (England) office saw their on-line post. Within 24 hours they had related their experience and suggested a way of fixing it, and problem solved. There was no way before for the two to hook up and for that information exchange to happen," says Redshaw.
Knowledge about this and other issues has been captured in wikis. He estimates Aviva now has 120 wikis, most of them contributed spontaneously and voluntarily, with the potential for 500 to 600 more.
"The thing is to get it so that it goes viral," says Redshaw. "The value of this sort of platform drives viral adoption simply because it requires no training and is truly useful to the end user."
That way, Aviva's 54,000 staff have access to the company's best practices, as well as the experts who wrote them, on a need-to-know basis and without having to set up an expensive formal infrastructure.
More importantly, it helps prevent the duplication of work of solving the same problems or managing the same opportunities over and over across the globe. Redshaw says "This is not just about innovation, it is about killing 'un-innovation', which is the often hidden, but wholly unnecessary duplication and reworking of similar issues around a global firm."
But it's not all business. Anyone with access to the platform can set up groups, blog, and arrange gatherings, even run sports teams.
"If you want people to use it, you've got to tolerate them using it, and not always in the way you expect," Redshaw says. "We want the inside of Aviva to feel like the modern world our customers and partners live in. We want a firm where the smart 20-somethings feel they are working for a firm that 'gets it', not a stodgy old stereotypical insurance shop."
As a result Aviva does not police its use, allowing the community to self-regulate and jump on bad behaviour. "We have only had one incident where HR had to be called in," he says.
How they did it
"The speed with which Microsoft was able to deliver Aviva's social network system is down to three key points: Great SOA (service-oriented architecture), smart zero training footprint design and a very small implementation team with a wildly aggressive time-boxed delivery goal" says Aviva CIO Toby Redshaw.
"A small team of smart, turned-on folks, turned loose against an impossible world-debating goal will surprise you as long as they are empowered and management folks like me don't get in their way."
On another front, Redshaw extols the benefits of Business Process Management (BPM) software. With this, Aviva builds business process maps, which are sequences of events that must happen to fulfil a complex task such as taking on a new employee.
"BPM allows you to iteratively model the right task flows and then generates most of the code for you," says Redshaw. As a result, the code comes together somewhat like a Meccano set, he says.
In addition, rapid iteration with the business partners present in the room helps deliver what the business really wants first time. Thanks to the "behind the curtain" sophistication of the tool it is delivered in about a third of the time, Redshaw says.
Aviva IT focuses on solutions first, not tools, he says. "How you attack a problem is as important as what tools you bring to the job."
Part of that approach on the Web 2.0 platform was to "time-box" the Aviva team and Microsoft's developers. This meant setting a very aggressive delivery date and working backwards from there to establish the critical path and resources needed. This helped focus work on the essentials. More importantly, this drove the team to fight against waste and rework and innovate to hit a deadline that in Redshaw's view was "certainly not business as usual".
The project convinced Redshaw of the benefits of social networking as a collaboration tool. "Without social networking, collaboration is like blind man's buff," he says.
"Web 2.0 for the enterprise is a game changer and an accelerator," he says. Coupled with BPM (Aviva has standardised on Lombardi's product), he believes IT can be pivotal in driving the results required in Aviva's "One Aviva, twice the value" vision. His vision of Aviva becoming "big and agile" is coming to life.