Project Management Institute

Next-Level Strategy

Mark Van den Broek, CIO, Asia, Manulife, Hong Kong, China







Long known for being slow to change, the insurance industry is finally starting to contend with the kind of digital transformation that's become business as usual in nearly all other sectors. And Mark Van den Broek and his colleagues at Manulife's Asia offices are determined to shatter old stereotypes. They realize Manulife needs to become a digital leader in order to keep pace with the ever-changing expectations of policyholders.

Mr. Van den Broek oversees Manulife's technology and operations across the organization's 12 Asian markets. He collaborates with Asia's executive team to define strategy, and he works with each market's CIO and COO to turn that strategy into execution.

How do you collaborate with other C-suite executives to define Manulife's Asia strategy?

Last year, Manulife rolled out a new global mission statement: “Decisions made easier, lives made better.” The Asia executive committee defines our strategy against that mission statement, then we work with each country's general manager to take the strategy to a more granular level.

What does the new mission statement mean for you as Asia CIO?

Under that mission statement, we have five strategic priorities, and one of them is to be the digital customer leader in our industry. So a large part of the technology and operations strategy involves delivering on that priority.

How do you ensure that the strategic priorities translate into execution?

Project management serves as the link between our strategic priorities and the execution of projects to achieve those priorities. We have a robust strategic planning process that allocates funds into portfolios of projects, and we align them using portfolio and project management processes and tools. It's difficult to imagine how we would be successful at achieving our strategic ambition of becoming a digital customer leader without having a world-class project management function in place.

How did that world-class project management function materialize?

A few years ago, our project management function in the Asia segment was relatively immature. We didn't have standardized tools or processes, and we weren't investing enough in our project professionals. We upped our game over the past two years. We rolled out standard portfolio and project management processes, tools and software across the organization. We built communities of project management practice. We spent a lot of time on training, coaching and mentoring. If you want a high-performing team, you have to continually invest in your people—it's not a one-off investment. That's paying off now in the way we approach our strategic priorities and deliver on them.

What prompted the organizational emphasis on project management maturity?

Before Roy Gori became the global CEO in 2017, he had been the Asia CEO since 2015. He set a new level of strategic ambition for Manulife's Asia segment. Prior to that, we had less of a cohesive strategy across the Asia segment. We realized we needed to invest seriously in our project management capabilities. And we realized we needed to transform in order to meet changing customer expectations. So it was a combination of internal and external forces.

What's the biggest challenge in terms of meeting your strategic objectives?

Our customers’ expectations are changing extremely quickly, and those expectations are shaped by the last great digital experience they had in their day-to-day lives—like buying something on Amazon, streaming a film on Netflix or listening to a favorite tune on Spotify. Their expectation is not necessarily shaped by the last experience they had with their insurance provider or wealth manager.

Customers also have a lot of choice in this industry. So we have to deliver an experience equivalent to the ones they have on Amazon or Netflix. That requires us to change quickly as an organization. But this traditionally has been an old-fashioned, paper-based industry with complicated processes. So the internal challenge for project management teams is to simplify the complexity we've built up over the years.

How do your project teams stay nimble and adapt to customer expectations?

Over the last couple of years, we've focused heavily on agile approaches, especially for digital projects that touch our customers and distributors. We had to change our delivery approach to make sure we listen to our customers and understand their needs.

In the past, we've been guilty of assuming we know what the customers want. Now we ask our customers what they want, and we use that to define the requirements and to build and deliver products. We first release a minimum viable product, gather customer feedback, watch the way they interact with the digital tool, collect data about that, and then we course-correct quickly and continue to iterate further version releases and build more functionality and new features. It's an iterative process rather than a traditional, one-and-done waterfall approach.

Can you describe any current projects that deliver the priority of being a digital customer leader?

Two current projects use the power of digital to impact the experience our customers have with us. One is an electronic point-of-sale project that will put an end-to-end sales tool into the hands of our agents and distributors. So a customer will see the entire sales process conducted by the agent on an iPad.

The second example is an e-claims project. Claims are the moment of truth in our relationship with our customers. They bought a policy from us, held it for years, and then they have an event that triggers a claim. Now they'll be able to make the claim completely on their mobile phones without having to fill out any paper forms or call anyone at a call center. PM


Small Talk

What do you wish you had known at the start of your career?

Great leaders learn more from their mistakes than from their successes.

What do you find is underrated?

The power of positive thinking. You can achieve anything you want if you believe you can.

What's your favorite travel destination?

That's easy: Bali. You unwind the minute you get off the plane.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.



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