Aflac’s rising success in Belfast

  • Sync NI spoke with Mark McCormack, VP and Managing Director at Aflac Northern Ireland, to discuss their journey so far and how they have settled into their brand-new offices at the recently completed, Grade A office development City Quays 3.

    Aflac, a Fortune 500 company and the No. 1 provider of supplemental health insurance products in the U.S. as well as the leading provider of cancer and medical insurance policies in force in Japan, established its Technology and Cybersecurity Innovation Centre in Northern Ireland just four years ago. Today, Aflac Northern Ireland employs over 150 people working in technology, software engineering and cybersecurity.

    It’s impossible not to be in awe of the stunning panoramic views visible from standing on top of Belfast’s landmark City Quays development, reported to be the tallest office building in Northern Ireland. Overlooking the entire city and beyond, it commands views over the historic shipyard and Belfast Lough, including iconic landmarks from Belfast Castle on one side to Scrabo Tower in Newtownards on the other. The view even extends all the way to the Mourne Mountains in the distance. The purposeful interior design of the offices themselves are no less impressive, and the space has been designed to inspire and encourage creativity, imagination and of course innovation.

    Mark explained that careful consideration went into the design to ensure that the new building reflects Aflac’s culture as an organization, a place where people come together to be creative and collaborative. As a near 4-yr-old tech company, with a stated purpose to “deliver a frictionless digital experience for our customers in their time of need”, bringing new ideas to the fore is key to unlocking the potential that technology brings. 

    Standing on the balcony of the 16-story building overlooking the city, this is a place that the entire team can draw on for inspiration. Mark explains how “Being at the same height as the famous cranes and overlooking Belfast can give you a new perspective to think about your problems in a different way. Problems that may feel overbearing and hard to overcome at ground level are easier to solve when you’re at a distance and able to see the bigger picture. I genuinely believe having this physical perspective drives a mindset and attitude to make complex problems more solvable.”

    Mark went on to explain how Aflac draws inspiration from Belfast’s historic past as a leader in innovation and great design thinking. He pointed over towards the docks and talked passionately about how proud he was to be located in the part of Belfast that once drove the economy of the region.  In the past Northern Ireland was renowned for its shipbuilding, linen-making and ropemaking but today that engineering heritage that once made the city famous has reemerged in different guises. Now 100 years later Northern Ireland is recognized globally for its successful cybersecurity, software development and world-class film studios. All of this inspires Aflac Northern Ireland as they look to the future.

    As you would expect, innovation is high on Aflac’s agenda, and numerous programs and initiatives are in place to ensure a culture of innovation is imprinted throughout the business.

    Mark iterated this with a nod to Northern Ireland’s rise in recognition. “This part of the world has always been a leader in innovation and implementing new ideas, new systems, and new technologies. We bring that mindset to Aflac as well.’’

    Mark described how Aflac team members take part in a 12-week Innovation Program where they get the opportunity to step out of their role and embrace their creative curiosity as they learn about how to apply innovation to challenging business problems. The wealth of business knowledge and range of skills they bring back into their teams after 12 weeks is quite remarkable – from design-thinking concepts to a new appreciation of the customer’s journey, it’s an incredible way for the teams to develop.

    Mark also cited a recent example of an in-person session named ‘’Blocker Busters” which involved 80 team members split into groups of people from across all of the teams to address ‘blockers’ in processes or technology. The goal was to identify those issues and collaborate to create innovative solutions to clear the path for those facing similar challenges. After a recent review, it was pleasing to see that many of the blockers had been alleviated as a result of this particular session. Mark acknowledged that through the teams’ collaborative spirit this helped to create several useful learnings that will be embraced by the company for the future.

    When asked about how new technologies might impact the business, Mark believes that in the future the integration of AI will undoubtedly bring more change but change for the better. By strategically leveraging AI and new technologies he believes that AI will be an enabler to remove mundane tasks and ‘focus our time on what human being are best at. This means being empathetic, being creative and spending time together as human beings. Let machines take care of the mundane and we’ll take care of the people.’

    Automation is another hugely important area for Aflac’s business and they are dedicated to improving the customer experience, particularly given the emotional aspects and sensitivities of the coverage Aflac provides. As Mark explains, when a customer makes contact, they might be having one of the worst days of their lives – whether that’s a really challenging medical diagnosis or a child that is sick or injured – so it’s essential that Aflac’s digital solutions deliver a frictionless experience for their customers.

    Aflac Northern Ireland are working on some of the most important projects for the business such as the policyholder app, ‘MyAflac’, allowing customers to self-serve by submitting their claims online. The team are working to make the claims process touchless so it can all be processed automatically using the technology without any human intervention. As a result, customers are able to receive their money in a day or two rather than a week, which is the typical processing time for most companies.

    Aflac are also developing AI and machine learning capabilities to further automate their processes and by using intelligent solutions they can provide a much-improved customer experience.  AI can assist by generating recommendations for claims specialists to make sure customers are getting the correct money and benefits and give them what they need to get on with their daily lives.

    In a relatively short period of time, Aflac Northern Ireland have grown to a 150-strong organisation, where talented professionals can succeed, and know that they have a clear purpose.  Aflac’s investment in one of the most impressive spaces in the city, shows how much they value the innovation from their employees, and builds on the impressive legacy of Belfast, whilst pointing to huge opportunities in the future.

    This article appears in the summer edition of Sync NI magazine. To receive a free copy click here

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