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Sun Life’s Chief Architect on culture and upskilling, and their role in DX

Sun Life’s Alice Thomas on how the company’s 50,000-strong team supports a global network of clients. with nimble, tech-forward solutions.

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Pushing a digital transformation (DX) journey forward is a lot of work in any business. For Sun Life, it’s quite literally a massive undertaking. 

Think: 50,000-employees-navigating-change-and-upskilling-level big.

Managing change in the insurance industry is a complicated affair, as many organizations have to split their technology budgets between maintaining existing business, while also innovating. In addition, tech talent is hard to recruit in a competitive market, and agile workplaces make career progression less obvious for those who want to see a path forward.

For Alice Thomas, the key to success in a sea of challenges is culture.

As Chief Architect and Digital Technology Officer at Sun Life, Thomas is at the helm of the key teams responsible for delivering digital experiences for the business. A major component of the job is pinpointing areas to be improved, and implementing new and innovative solutions. And she has to do it for a multi-sided business made up of different stakeholders —  advisors, clients, and employees.

“In order for us to really be a digital company, we had to change our culture,” says Thomas. Five years ago the business adopted an agile approach to transformation that empowered teams to experiment, fail fast to succeed sooner, and learn.

“I think that’s a big change in how we look at digital leadership and giving people that opportunity to try new, innovative approaches and telling them it’s okay to do something different that you haven’t done before,” she says. “That’s a big change in our culture.” 

Previously, teams at Sun Life would operate in a hierarchical manner where employees would

“send everything upstairs for decision-making,” Thomas says. Big, monolithic projects would require endless back and forth.

When Sun Life switched to an agile approach, it drove more efficiency, and in turn, more innovation.

Alice Thomas (photo via LinkedIn)

“Our journey is called the digital enterprise. It’s not just digital for Canada, or digital for Asia. It’s the digital enterprise and everybody in the company is on the same journey.”

Thomas says about 70% of digital projects are completed this way, and the result is everyone talks with the same nomenclature and language, and everyone has input or is aware of what’s going on.

“We talk about career growth for people in these journeys, because roles have changed. Remember, the manager doesn’t exist in agile. They may be a scrum master, they may be a product leader. We’ve had to train everyone.”

Thomas says another important factor in building best-in-class teams is training and upskilling existing people. Rather than making individuals apply for their job all over again when teams move to an agile approach, Sun Life trains its people to shift to new ways of working so everyone is on the same journey. When new people are hired, Thomas says everyone plays a role in training, creating new learning, and growth opportunities.

“Whether you are a technologist or someone in the business, now you’ve got a new role — a kind of product owner — which was not something we had before. We’re shifting to new ways of working and giving everybody an opportunity to learn and be part of it.”

Photo via #WOCinTech Chat

When agile leaders focus on building culture, innovation wins

The biggest benefit of the approach Sun Life has taken, Thomas says, is the old days of “those guys in digital” being the only ones who know what’s changing are long gone.

Adaptability is also baked into Sun Life’s approach.

For example, during the pandemic, Thomas and her team experimented with ways of making it easier for clients to book virtual appointments with healthcare providers.

The result: Ella, a digital coach.

Ella is a voice interface that provides product recommendations and actionable, data-driven insights through personalized and intelligent nudges. Ultimately, it makes the process of booking virtual healthcare provider appointments easier via web, mobile devices, and using voice requests. Ella even enables clients to access their health and benefits information using Amazon Alexa. 

Sun Life says it is one of the first companies in the insurance and finance industries to implement a voice interface. Today, Ella has connected with clients more than 40 million times between January and March 2022.

And while it’s early days, Thomas notes that prototyping VR experiences and even virtual recruiting could be next on the docket. This could be especially promising, since much of Sun Life’s new talent consists of recent grads hoping to obtain a fresh perspective on emerging technologies.

“We are looking at the Metaverse now,” she explains. “Giving students a VR experience on what it’s like to work here and be in our building. We are trying to figure out what makes sense and the things that will make it easy for a client or employee to play with it and be interested.”

Innovation leaders pick their battles

While experiments are important for innovation, Thomas also advocates for prioritization, saying that it doesn’t make sense to try innovating everything.

“I was looking at quantum computing during the pandemic. We sent a couple of our developers on some quantum computing courses,” she explains. “When they came back, we learned that it’s still early days. We started looking at cases where quantum could help us, but nothing was really viable, because the technology is still early.”

Of course, timing and cost benefit analysis is also important, and technologies could be revisited down the road, but as Thomas says, “you have to be smart about what you pick.” 

Another thing that innovators need to get used to is they sometimes need to pivot away from projects after they’ve started.

“This is a culture of innovation that allows people to take some calculated risks, dabble in some new stuff, and walk away when it doesn’t work. You have to know when to take your learnings and get out. That’s key.” 

Thomas recalls a project years ago that took a lot of time, and in the end the leadership team decided the solution wouldn’t work so the project had to be rethought entirely.

“It kind of created some new DNA [at Sun Life],” she says. “It really changed the conversation around experimentation, how long you experiment for, and also being smart enough to get out quickly.”

Today, Thomas says about 10% of what comes through her innovation lab has gone into production, with the other 90% driving ongoing learning.

Photo via #WOCinTech Chat

Moving toward a more diverse and inclusive business

Culture is a key ingredient in Sun Life’s digital transformation success, but so is its focus on diversity and inclusion, says Thomas.

“You can’t get these types of client-facing capabilities built unless you have a diverse team,” she says. “Your team has to mirror your client groups.”

Attracting women to the company has been a big focus, and today, Thomas says 40% of Sun Life’s IT workforce is now made up of women.

“We’ve been successful because we’ve been able to hire and retain a lot of great talent in our company,” she says, crediting events and industry collaboration as some of the biggest contributors to the company’s talent pipeline.

Case in point: the WeaveSphere innovation conference.

Sun Life is a sponsor and long-time supporter of the event as part of its efforts to engage with young innovators researching career paths.

“We do a lot to attract talent, but it’s one of the most difficult, especially now for any company,” she says.

WeaveSphere, which takes place in Toronto November 15-17, 2022, creates relationships between industry leaders, developers, and academics who collaborate to accelerate innovation.

Want to learn more about Sun Life and its approach to innovation? Meet Thomas and the Sun Life team at #WeaveSphere. Get your tickets today.


DX Journal is an official media partner for WeaveSphere. We will share updates leading up to the event, and we’ll be live on location from November 15-17,2022. Join us and get your tickets at weavesphere.co.

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How has US wealth evolved since the 1980s?

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How do people allocate their wealth? The Wealth Enhancement Group analyzed data published by the Federal Reserve to answer this question.
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America’s economy has exploded since 1989.

Gross domestic product, which measures all of the goods and services produced in a year, grew from $9.9 trillion to $22.5 trillion from 1989 to 2023 (after accounting for inflation), according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. This figure represents a massive increase in economic output.

This increased productivity has fed into a similarly significant increase in wealth. The Wealth Enhancement Group used data from the Federal Reserve to look at how the assets held by U.S. households has evolved over time.

Data shows that American households owned a combined $161 trillion in assets in the third quarter of 2023, up from $24 trillion in 1989. That makes for a roughly 570% increase, or 170% after adjusting for inflation.

After accounting for debt, such as mortgages, America’s total household net worth grew to $142 trillion, up from $20 trillion. Although the number is down by about 1% from its peak in the second quarter of 2022, it still reflects a dramatic increase over time.

The most valuable asset class the typical American family holds is real estate. Besides a significant drop during the 2000s subprime mortgage crisis and a brief dip following interest rate hikes in 2022, housing has been a reliable generator of wealth for the middle class.


Line chart showing the rise of household assets in the US between 1989 and 2023, which rose from $24 trillion to $161 trillion.

Wealth Enhancement Group

Household assets have skyrocketed since 1989

For Americans in the bottom half of the wealth distribution, housing made up 51% of their assets. Wealthier households, in contrast, tend to have higher shares of their savings in equities.

Households in the top 0.1% held 60% of their assets in shares of public and private companies in 2023. Meanwhile, households in the bottom half of wealth in the United States held only around 6% of assets in equities.

Yet, despite how much housing has grown in value, its ascent pales compared to the fastest-growing asset class: public equities.

Between 1989 and 2023, the value of public stocks held by American households grew by nearly 1,700%, rising from $2 trillion in value to $37 trillion. This trend, coupled with the fact that shares in companies are held disproportionately by the rich, has caused the share of American household assets held by the top 0.1% to increase from 8% to 12%.

A stacked bar chart showing the top 0.1% have most of their wealth in equities where housing makes up for 51% of the assets of people in the bottom half of wealth in the United States.

Wealth Enhancement Group

The wealthy tend to own shares in companies

Some economists argue that, in theory, the ratio of a country’s wealth to its economy, as measured by GDP, should be constant over time.

Yet, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Federal Reserve data shows that the ratio of the net worth of American households and nonprofit organizations to GDP rose from around 3.6 in the 1980s to 5.5 in the third quarter of 2023.

In 2022, YiLi Chien and Ashley Stewart, two researchers at the St. Louis Federal Reserve, offered a few theories to explain how this ratio has increased over time. They suggest that American companies might now have greater market power, allowing them to charge more. The authors also note that since the internet era, many of America’s biggest companies, such as Meta and Google, offer their services to consumers for free—while investors may value their economic contributions, they do not count for much in the GDP numbers.

However, assets are not net worth. The rich are more likely to own their homes outright. In the third quarter of 2023, households from the top 0.1% owned $1.83 trillion worth of real estate while owing just $70 billion in mortgages. In contrast, households in the bottom 50% of wealth owned $4.87 billion of real estate against $3 billion of housing debt.

Story editing by Ashleigh Graf. Copy editing by Kristen Wegrzyn.

This story originally appeared on Wealth Enhancement Group and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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Deepfakes cause 30% of organizations to doubt biometrics, Gartner finds

A look at AI deepfakes, it’s impact on security, and ways to mitigate the risks

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A fake moustache and trenchcoat isn’t a convincing disguise, right? But a digitally altered video that makes your face identical to someone else’s? 

That’s a different story. 

Deepfakes are artificial images or videos that imitate a person’s likeness so convincingly that it can be nearly impossible to recognize they’re fake. Hackers use them to impersonate people’s faces and voices. This can have monumental impacts — even $25 million worth, which is what one undisclosed company lost in a deepfake scam. 

Even with all the money a company spends on voice authentication and facial biometrics, it can all be in vain if a deepfake hacker manages to fool them. 

Gartner explores the impact of deepfakes on organizational policy, and we’ll share some risk management considerations to address the trend. 

30% of organizations can’t rely on facial recognition software and biometrics

Biometrics rely on presentation attack detection (PAD) to assess a person’s identity and liveness. The problem now is that today’s PAD standards don’t protect against injection attacks from AI deepfakes. Once a bulletproof security strategy, biometrics are now inefficient for 30% of companies surveyed by Gartner. 

“These artificially generated images of real people’s faces, known as deepfakes, can be used by malicious actors to undermine biometric authentication or render it inefficient,” 

— Akif Khan, VP Analyst at Gartner 

The solution is a demand for more innovative cybersecurity tech. Gartner advises organizations to update their minimum requirements from cybersecurity members to include all of the following 

  • PAD
  • Injected attacks detection (IAD)
  • Image inspection

On top of that, you can beef up security with: 

  • Device identification: Numerical values or codes to identify a user’s device
  • Behavioural analytics: Machine learning algorithms to detect any shifts in day-to-day online behaviour

So, how can you account for deepfakes risks and mitigation in practice? Here are a few more tips to consider: 

  • Educate employees: Hold monthly or quarterly meetings with experts in the field to help your employee identify common signs of deepfakes, including blurred or pixelated images in a person’s video, or distorted audio. Greater awareness of what to look out for can allow employees to flag suspicions. 
  • Don’t rely on one authentication process: Multi-factor authentication demands 2+ pieces of evidence to verify a user before admitting them into a network. Include email, phone, or voice verification in addition to biometrics. 
  • Invest in deepfake detection software: Consider a subscription Sensity AI, Deepware Scan, Truepic, or Microsoft Video Authenticator. 

Gartner plans to share more findings and research on deepfakes at their security and risk management summits taking place in various countries around the world. 

Read more about those summits and see the news release here.

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Where companies have adopted AI—and where they are planning to do so in the near future

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Verbit analyzed survey data from the Census Bureau to see which states have the most companies that are enthusiastic about artificial intelligence.
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On Nov. 30, 2022, OpenAI launched ChatGPT, a chatbot driven by artificial intelligence. The app spread like wildfire. Not only did it provide an entertaining companion to chat with, but it also showed promise as a piece of productivity software.

ChatGPT allows users to ask questions about myriad topics and get useful responses in a way that search engines like Google cannot provide. Similar technologies have emerged in all kinds of domains, including image generation, language translation, transcription, computer programming, and more.

Firms across the U.S. are embracing artificial intelligence. To find out which regions are the most enthusiastic about AI, Verbit analyzed data from surveys taken by the Census Bureau in December 2023. Overall, 4.9% of businesses said they were using AI to produce goods or services in the past two weeks, while 6.7% say they plan to within the next six months.

Unsurprisingly, information technology companies are the most eager to use artificial intelligence—22% of respondents from American tech companies said they had used AI for their products or services within the past two weeks. That number actually understates AI’s impact in the field. A survey of computer programmers conducted by JetBrains, a software company, found that 77% of respondents used ChatGPT, while 46% used GitHub Copilot, an AI coding assistant.

Professional, scientific, and technical services were the second-most likely type of firm to respond that they used AI tools, according to the Census Bureau. Law firms are using tools to scan through thousands of past cases. And, according to Tess Bennett, a technology reporter for Financial Review, consultants and accountants are using AI to create PowerPoint presentations and conduct exploratory data analysis.


A map of showing which states have the highest share of companies who are currently using AI to produce goods and services.

Verbit

Top adopters

Some businesses have been quicker to adopt AI than others. Companies in Rhode Island lead the way on this front—8.7% of businesses in the state are currently using AI, nearly twice the rate of companies in the United States as a whole.

Companies on the West Coast and the Southwest tended to be more AI-friendly, while companies in the Rust Belt were likelier to have the lowest interest in using AI tools.

This story matches the Census survey numbers with data on what kinds of companies each state has within its borders and the education level of its workforce to understand why these disparities across states exist.

In general, states with a higher share of businesses in the technology sector also were likely to have more businesses use AI to produce goods and services. However, the weak correlation suggests that despite all of the hype surrounding AI, companies have still been slow to change their practices to adopt the technology.

A map showing which states have the highest share of companies which plan to use AI to produce goods and services in the next 6 months.

Verbit

Getting on the bandwagon

Businesses in Washington D.C., were the most likely to say they planned to adopt AI in the next six months, at 13.7%. Meanwhile, about 9% of businesses in Maryland, Alaska, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Florida said they planned on implementing AI. Alabama and Delaware were the least enthusiastic about AI adoption—only 3.3% of businesses in the two states reported plans to implement AI.

This analysis of Census data found a much stronger correlation between how many of a state’s firms are in the tech sector and their willingness to implement AI in their business practices in the near future.

Similar trends were found when it came to states with highly educated workforces—in general, the higher the share of a state’s residents with college degrees, the more likely its businesses were to say they were planning on implementing AI. Artificial intelligence might be the future. But Census data reveals it is still early days.

Story editing by Ashleigh Graf. Copy editing by Kristen Wegrzyn.

This story originally appeared on Verbit and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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