Aflac discusses NI: A reputation for innovation, then and now

  • As Aflac Northern Ireland approaches its first anniversary, Sync NI sat down with their Leadership Team to find out about the work they do and the future for tech in NI

    When you walk into the offices at Aflac NI, you don’t feel like you’re in a long-established Fortune 500 company. 

    Its bright and spacious offices at City Quays, which boasts breakout sofa spaces for meetings, special sound-proof glass pods, a fridge full of cans of cola and a large duck made entirely of binary code, giving the impression of a young start-up tech business. 

    “We looked at 15 global cities before choosing Belfast,” said Managing Director, Keith Farley. “It wasn’t just the steady flow of talent and the people that made it the right place for us to do business, but also the can-do culture and the supportive business environment.” 

    The organisation has ambitions to recruit 150 people in the next few years and is already on its way to achieving that goal. 

    “We’re building a culture that focuses on its employees. We want the people who work for us to feel like they can be themselves, they can be creative and really fulfil their potential. We’re an ideas organisation and we want to attract ideas people. The work we do here is serious, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” said Leader of Talent and Culture, Sarah Milliken. 

    The organisation’s U.S. parent company, Aflac, has been around for 65 years and is one of the world’s largest providers of supplemental health insurance. The office in Northern Ireland helps provide the technology and cyber security capability for the global business. 

    Mark McCormack is Head of Technology and he explains how the technology in the NI office contributes to the wider global business. 

    “We are building new solutions with the customer experience at the forefront of our thinking. When our customers are using our technology, they may be having a bad day, perhaps even the worst day of their lives. They could be facing an accident or injury to a loved-one, or a cancer diagnosis that will change their lives. So, we understand the importance of delivering an easy and intuitive experience to them in their time of need,” he said.

    Key to the organisation’s work of the last few months and a new development for the industry in Northern Ireland is Pega, an enterprise business process management platform that provides sophisticated workflow automation capabilities, as well as utilising new technologies including robotics, chatbots, workforce analytics and artificial intelligence. 

    “At Aflac NI, we started by building a new team tasked with developing applications using this powerful technology. When we started out, we found that it was not a skillset readily available locally, but through a combination of recruiting experienced engineers and enthusiastic developers from our Assured Skills programme, we built a strong foundational team that quickly adapted to Pega and is now impressing everyone they work with in the U.S.,” McCormack added. 

    “For example, we recently launched a new Pega online chatbot capability used by our agents who sell Aflac’s insurance products across 50 U.S. states. Now we are turning our attention to building data-driven solutions using machine learning and AI to derive ‘next best actions’ for our customer service staff and eliminate menial tasks so that our employees are focused on value-add activities. At Aflac we say that if you look after your employees, then they will look after the customer. 

    “This technology enables you to identify bottlenecks in the process, where you are resource-constrained, and which systems are blocking a better customer experience. You can measure the heartbeat of the organisation, and once you can do that, you can really automate and improve things.“ 

    McCormack is adamant that the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift to a more mobile capability. 

    “Shifting capabilities to mobile is critical to the success of the business. Our mobile app team in NI has been at the forefront of accelerating the development of features this year that enable our sales agents to work differently than before. These features include the ability to engage remotely with the customer, help them to submit claims via the mobile app, and ensure that even though how we work may have changed forever, the level of service that we provide does not.“ 

    McCormack noted that as the company looks to pivot into more web and mobile development, data analytics and machine learning, building out new teams that focus on the latest technologies will help ensure that Aflac NI is making good on the promise of providing world-class talent that an quickly adapt to new technologies, bring real innovation to the company and deliver enhanced value to customers wherever they are in the world. 

    Tom Trainor is Head of Cyber Security and is responsible for building the security capability behind the organisation’s entire platform or, as he puts it, “keeping the bad guys out.” He says that Aflac NI is building a diverse, multi-functional Cyber Security Team to support the company’s GlobalSecurity Program to protect Aflac’s customers in the U.S. and Japan. 

    “When customers come to us at a difficult time, they need secure, resilient systems to manage their policies, so it is critical that our infrastructure and applications are protected. Aflac’s brand, as a global Fortune 500 company, is one of its most valuable assets and protecting its reputation is of utmost importance,” Trainor said. 

    In terms of the development of Northern Ireland’s cyber security credentials, Tom said it was the region’s steady flow of talent that made the region hugely attractive for start-ups and established companies alike. 

    “We are building a solid base across core security capabilities to include Application Security, Security Engineering, Data Protection and Identity Access Management and taking ownership of critical functions of the Global Security Program,” he added. 

    Despite the challenging economic conditions caused by the pandemic, Aflac NI has continued to expand and recruit. “We’re just getting started,” said Managing Director Keith Farley. “To us, Aflac NI is a business determined to do things differently with its eyes firmly set on the future.

    This article first appeared in the 'Future Tech' edition of the Sync NI magazine and it can be found here.

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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