CIO uses master data management to speed digitalization

IMA Financial Group CIO Michelle Vercellino's effort to clean up, protect and govern the firm's data is an important step in the firm's quest for 'data intelligence.'

CIO Michelle Vercellino is pursuing an objective familiar to many business and IT executives today: Use company data to improve customer service. In her quest to do that, Vercellino, who oversees IT at IMA Financial Group Inc., has also faced many of the problems companies typically encounter in these efforts -- from fixing incomplete and redundant data to dealing with the sprawling legacy systems that make analytics and digitalization difficult.

Vercellino has been tackling these challenges since she joined the employee-owned financial services company in January 2017. She started as CTO before switching titles to CIO a year later, a move to better reflect her role of using IT to drive business growth and scalability, as well as operational efficiencies.

Based in IMA Financial's Denver offices, today, Vercellino oversees a 25-member IT team that serves 700 employees. Here, she talks about how she's overhauling legacy systems, driving digitalization and giving employees better access to better data.

What was your biggest challenge when you joined the company?

Michelle Vercellino: One of the larger challenges was the technical debt on the infrastructure side. We didn't make investments for a few years, and so we were stuck with making some large investments to ensure we were on the right track.

What was the legacy situation when you arrived?

Vercellino: A big issue besides break-fix was not being able to evolve and innovate. One of our strategies is moving everything to the cloud, or at least moving the appropriate applications to the cloud. But we had to upgrade [some technology] just so we could get to the cloud.

What does innovation look like for you?

Michelle VercellinoMichelle Vercellino

Vercellino: We have what we call strategic pillars. Some of the pillars have to do with mergers and acquisitions, customer acquisition, while another pillar is focused on data intelligence. Our CEO has a vision of how to use data and analytics to a point where we can reduce or eliminate risk based on the data we have. In the industry, we are also looking at blockchain and what that can do to mitigate risk. You hear talk about people going direct [to the customer] using blockchain.

We have a lot of consolidation in the industry: Private equity firms are offering some pretty decent deals, so we're seeing a lot of our competitors sell and consolidate. But that's not what we want to do. We're employee-owned and we plan to be here long term, and, to do that, we have [to focus] on digitalization.

What top IT priorities did you seek to accomplish in your first year?

Vercellino: No. 1 was really getting our arms around security in general; that's probably pretty standard for folks in my position, making sure we have the right protections in place and having an understanding of how we're protecting data, what we're doing for disaster recovery, and having that in a standard way to share out to our company. Second was stabilization -- stabilization of the infrastructure and the applications. Part of that was understanding the current inventory and going through a rationalization process. And third was customer experience, both external customers and making sure, internally, that folks have what they need to do their jobs every day.

What about this year: What are your top projects for 2018?

Vercellino: This year, we'll follow the security trend. GDPR (The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation) is big right now, so we're making sure we're going to be compliant. We're also doing quite a bit on our infrastructure side as we continue to upgrade and switch to the cloud.

My biggest, newest initiative is business intelligence, which has just been formally moved under me. That one is all about mastering data -- data governance, the analytics that can come with that and ensuring that, again, we're protecting the data in the right way and also using that data to do Data-driven decision-making.

We're employee-owned and we plan to be here long term, and, to do that, we have [to focus] on digitalization.
Michelle VercellinoCIO, IMA Financial Group

How are you driving that forward?

Vercellino: We earn the right to really partner and be hand-in-hand with the business. To do that, you have to deliver and prove yourself. You have to meet the basic needs and make sure they're happy before you can elevate to partnering and automating and innovating. In the past, I think we had a working relationship with the business, but I think we continue to earn a new level of trust month over month.

You listed getting 'data into the hands of users' as one of your objectives. How are you enabling that?

Vercellino: Mastering your data, governing your data and ensuring there's quality. Those three things within the organization are essential to being able to deliver the best value for our clients today. Our journey is more of a maturity curve today. We're moving up; it's bigger than client contacts and benchmarking. So, now it's about how to get to the point where we can integrate third-party data and have predictive analytics and IoT and find more dynamic ways to use data to do things better.

My vision is that we know our clients just as well as they know themselves and we can make incredible recommendations on insurance and be more of a consulting-type service. You can't be in those consultative spaces and not know the customers as well as they know themselves.

Where are you now on this journey?

Vercellino: We've done some of the basics -- building out the warehouse, ensuring we're collecting all the data from the sources that we want to house for reporting and analytics, and coupling that with data stewards in the business and making sure people know how to use these tools and can integrate them into their everyday lives to serve the client. We just kicked off data-palooza, which is all about accuracy and completeness in our required fields today so we know we can trust our data. The worst thing you can do is put the wrong data in front of customers, because then you lose their trust.

What's your strategy for enabling this?

Vercellino: From a specific tool perspective, we use Semarchy [master data management software]. We did a pretty large vetting process; we did a complete analysis starting with eight, then down to four. We have a little bit more of a decentralized model, and so Semarchy is a great fit because it can bring all that data together in one place; we get the benefit of standardization of the data, so everyone works on the same data but still has a little more autonomy at a division or regional level. Then we have additional governance on top of that. It's pretty amazing for us to get to our single customer view. We also use Microsoft SQL databases and services, Amazon Web Services and Power BI.

What challenges did you face as you worked toward your data-related goals?

Vercellino: For master data management, our challenges were [identifying and reconciling] the multiple systems where client data lives and dealing with a lack of standardization across regions and divisions, data integrity in terms of a redundancy, and the incompleteness that came with a decentralized process and system. The master data management tool helps address that. We have brought together the business and technology to define data ownership and data stewardship and to build common reports. We established a data governance council, and we ensured accountability and offered incentives to enforce data quality and completeness.

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