Chief data officer (CDO) is one of the most in-demand executive positions. The number of companies hiring a CDO has more than quadrupled since 2012. Analyst Gartner estimates 90% of large organisations now have a CDO.
The reason for the growth in CDO appointments is simple – companies are collecting more data than ever and the effective use of this information is crucial to creating a competitive advantage. That’s a trend that resonates with Sudaman Thoppan Mohanchandralal, chief data and analytics officer at finance firm Allianz Benelux.
He is an experienced data executive, having previously worked for IBM, ING and BNP Paribas. Thoppan moved to Allianz in July 2017 and is helping the organisation to create and then exploit its data assets. Reflecting on knowledge gained during his career, he has straightforward advice for other aspiring data leaders: “Just be hyper-relevant.”
Thoppan says CDOs can ensure their relevancy by concentrating on business objectives. He says the effective exploitation of data is much more about understanding the requirements of customers than it is about just buying the right technological tools. Thoppan is putting that experience into practice on a daily basis.
“When I was at ING, BNP Paribas and IBM, the one thing above all else I learned is that data is a business topic – and that’s why I think I’m much more successful here at Allianz than elsewhere. Here, I get the opportunity to treat data as it should be treated. I apply the business strategy to turn our data into assets,” he says.
Taking charge of a pioneering approach
In his regional role, Thoppan is the chief data and analytics officer for Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, reporting directly to the Benelux CEO. A change in leadership at the organisation in April 2017 came with a mandate from the wider group that the Benelux region within Allianz should improve its growth and profitability.
The regional CEO was keen to use data and analytics to make this change happen. He wanted to use data to help the firm price its services competitively, predict the risk of taking on new customers, ensure claims are serviced in the best way possible and create a zero-tolerance policy for fraud. It was a change in direction that appealed to Thoppan.
“To do these things, data had to be used, but in a very different way than how that had happened traditionally,” he says. “This was something that I liked the sound of a lot, and this is the reason why I moved from BNP Paribas to Allianz. They wanted to build an offence-based strategy to data, not one built around defence.”
“At Allianz, I get the opportunity to treat data as it should be treated. I apply the business strategy to turn our data into assets”
Sudaman Thoppan Mohanchandralal, Allianz Benelux
Thoppan spends the majority of his time leading the building and deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) systems and services. Steered by the regional CEO, Thoppan and his team have deployed a range of what he refers to as industry-leading data-led solutions, with the aim of creating a competitive advantage for the insurance business.
The data team completes this work as a separate unit within the Allianz Benelux business. Thoppan says this innovative setup allows him to ensure the team develops creative information-led products that meet the company’s requirements.
“I get an opportunity to be in an incumbent organisation like Allianz, but to run a startup unit which is reconfiguring how insurance is being done in the business,” he says. “Working directly for the regional CEO, I get the best seat in the house to learn from him from a business perspective, while I bring to the table my data science and data analytics skills.”
Thoppan says this position within the organisation allows him to focus on what matters most – value creation. It’s a role he relishes: “Marrying these two things, data science and data skills, to target business outcomes as completely as possible in sharp loops, but maximising value, is a dream come true for me – I’m having the best moments of my career.”
Delivering products that help the business
Looking back on his first three years with Allianz Benelux, Thoppan says he’s helped create a step-change in the way the finance firm applies the insight it holds and creates.
“The organisation today understands data a lot more than a few years back. So our data culture, and the strategies around that, have really worked,” he says. “We’re on a journey, but we have moved Allianz Benelux from what it was before to being a data-driven organisation today.”
Sudaman Thoppan Mohanchandralal, Allianz Benelux
The data team has developed machine learning products across a range of areas, including pricing, fraud detection, customer risk and claims-handling processes. In total, it has delivered 70-plus data assets in the past three years.
Thoppan says the team is now the top contributor in terms of the creation of data-led products and services across the Allianz group globally. “In such a short span of time, to have come up with 70-plus assets that are being used is amazing. I’m very happy and proud of my team,” he says.
The team has won awards for the data products it has created and is now looking to patent some of the developments. “I was brought in to make this part of the company data-driven – and that is happening in a very good way,” he says. “We’re delivering outcomes. We definitely benchmark ourselves as one of the top data analytics offices in the firm – and that’s being recognised, too.”
Creating the principles for smarter solutions
Thoppan says the past three years have been about building what he calls “the assembly line for data”. Now, with that basic manufacturing process in place, he says it’s time to increase the velocity of delivery and to think about the next generation of data-based services the analytics team will bring to the business.
“We still have a considerable number of solutions in the pipeline, which are assets that are being built,” he says. “For the next year, I’m looking to create end-to-end and zero-cost solutions for the business. We are pretty much there, but we still need one more year – and I think we will be at the point I want in 12 to 18 months. I am looking forward to that moment.”
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Thoppan says the firm’s data architecture will play a crucial role in these ongoing developments. This architectural vision has two key principles. The first is to decouple data producers, publishers, consumers and subscribers, so that the analytics team can develop an even stronger awareness of who needs what type of insight and when.
The second principle involves the creation of a data broker. For every data topic, there is a single source of information. While that’s a simple concept, it’s not always easy to realise that notion in a large enterprise environment, where there’s a huge amount of data, with many years of historical data. In short, ensuring there’s a single source of data is complex.
“In our data-architecture thinking, we will have an internal data broker to whom you – as a consumer or subscriber of data – can ask exactly where the golden source is. This data broker will pick it up and give it to you. Before this happens, the broker will also ensure that there is an agreement for data quality, data usage and data delivery,” he says.
Building scalable data solutions
Thoppan says this decoupled and broker-led data architecture helps to ensure that security by design is a central element of the firm’s exploitation of information. Raw structured and unstructured data is held in a data lake. Allianz Benelux uses cloud-based data warehouse technology from IT specialist Snowflake to ensure this information is contextualised, usable and auditable. Thoppan says the cloud-based nature of the system is crucial.
“The data warehouse should be scalable and elastic – and that's where Snowflake comes into the picture. Why is it important for us that it is scalable and elastic? Because the regulations in insurance are become so much stronger that we require all transactions also to be accounted for, not only this year, but for years past as well,” he says.
Thoppan says his firm needs the ability to manage all sorts of data across a 30-year period. The predictions and forecasting that the firm does for the future involves processing huge amounts of data. While demand can peak at certain times – such as monthly and quarterly closings – the requirement can fluctuate downwards, too. This is where scalable cloud-based technology holds a big advantage.
“Traditional data warehouses are super-expensive to do these kinds of things – and that's why we really need Snowflake. It’s a technology that brings the asset and the database capability together, and it brings us the elasticity and scalability aspect we need,” he says.
Making great decisions with data
With the right data architecture in place, Thoppan says his team’s aims for the next couple of years are related to helping the organisation make game-changing judgements.
“Today we are working on data. Tomorrow we will be working on decisions. We will try to understand the quality of the decisions made and, based on that, we will try to continue to improve our processes going forward,” he says.
Thoppan has already helped prove the value of a strong data chief to his business. However, in many cases the role of the CDO still remains unclear, with advisory firm NewVantage Partners suggesting only 28% of data chiefs believe the role is “successful and established”.
From his experiences at Allianz Benelux, Thoppan reiterates his earlier statement – aspiring CDOs should focus on business objectives first and technology choices very much second.
“I apply the business strategy to turn our data into assets – otherwise I would be boiling the ocean. If you just treat data as an IT topic, you’ll just boil the ocean – and it’s never going to be over. You must focus on what the business really requires,” he says.