Reimagining How Technology Can Fuel Growth

By Gail Evans, CIO, Mercer Global

The rapidly evolving world of information technology has transformed the familiar call for "Faster, Better, Cheaper!" into a business expectation.

So is it any surprise when clients - internal and external - read about big data’s potential or the promise of artificial intelligence and start asking IT for new ways to monetize their information or to deepen their relationship with customers?

"Data is the lifeblood of any organization. At Mercer we call it the Knowledge Fabric because it weaves together information across our businesses"

Managing digital transformation is complex, especially given that most businesses operate large legacy systems built or purchased over the years. Converting legacy information into a nimble micro-services system has intrigued me for some time.

With the help of my team at Mercer, the world’s largest human resource consulting firm, I spent the last year building and implementing micro-services architecture that utilizes open-source and cloud-based software, built with API management strategy, and is accessible to internal stakeholders, customers, and vendors. We affectionately called it Mercer OS.

MercerOS is our technology ecosystem that enables our existing apps to move to micro-services while offering insights and compelling experiences to our customers. It is built around four pillars: technology infrastructure, organizational agility, platform services, and data. MercerOS is also about leveraging public cloud and DevOps model for continuous integration and delivery to increase speed to market and quality.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked to retool, re-platform, and re-skill a technology organization. So I knew that to accomplish that I had to have everyone’s buy-in, including the CEO, COO, leadership team, stakeholders, and 1,700 employees. We all had to share a common vision.

To inspire the company and to create a demand and sense of urgency among our leaders, I had to connect the technology solutions with the business need and value. Once I did that, I had full support of our CEO and COO. All that was left was to lead and inspire the technology team to deliver on our promises. And we did.

After getting the green light I spent three months observing our organization. I needed to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each facet of the organization. For instance, was the technology infrastructure ready for the cloud? What tools did people need to be more productive?

I studied the organization to see if it had the ability to not only handle continuous integration but colleagues have a sense of urgency, were they customer-centric and if not, what was the best way to inspire them to step into this new world of technology?

But my main focus was on building micro-services on the MercerOS platform and creating content standards, best practices, and components to serve our customers. The platform uses an open source stack that allows us to plug and play. The goal is to eventually build 60 percent of our solutions from components already on the shelf.

I wanted our Global Technology team (we don’t call ourselves IT) to be strategic partners to our business, bringing real value. To do so, MercerOS had to be built for innovation. I wanted an architecture that would encourage people to be creative, allow them to try out new things, and be innovative. Say a team member has an idea they are teasing out or have created a prototype they want to test. Well, if it works and they want to commercialize it, they don’t have to hit a reset button because it’s been built on a common platform.

Data is the lifeblood of any organization. At Mercer we call it the Knowledge Fabric because it weaves together information across our businesses based on a common taxonomy. Our data storage and access on MercerOS has been designed with privacy and security in mind. With a comprehensive data lake and streamlined data pipeline, we could learn more, take smarter actions, and provide our clients with better service in a different way.

I compiled all that information into our port for the CEO, COO, and the leadership team. Experience has taught me a few things when speaking to people on the business side of the ledger. First and foremost, they want to know how your proposed project will lower cost, enable growth, and provide a compelling experience for our customers. The other is to not ask for money but rather ask for their support to free up money for reinvestment company-wide, including technology.

My management style is to lead by example. So I rolled up my sleeves and jumped in. But I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed buy-in from my managers but not just buy-in. I needed them to be as excited about my vision as I was. So I chose people who had energy and passion, pointed them in the right direction, gave them a gentle push, and got out of their way!

While MercerOS was being implemented we had to continue developing platforms that delivered solutions to each of our verticals while also maintaining the knowledge from those verticals to be able to leverage and reuse the services across the company.

So I had to think creatively about how we could create more speed while standing up MercerOS and maintaining legacy systems. To do so, I got outside vendors to pitch in at their own expense through innovation contests, pilots, and proofs-of-concept for real business problems. That provided an opportunity to establish strategic relationships with our vendor partners as well as test drive some of their new technology capabilities, like AI and robotics.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was how quickly we could move our legacy applications into services on a new platform. Rather than waste years trying to unravel the spider web of applications, I decided to stand up some thing right beside it.

The challenge was figuring out how to tackle an application-obsolescence problem but not to focus exclusively on how to remediate it. So I flipped it. I acknowledged the issue and proposed a balanced risk approach that would take care of it iteratively, driven by business value with investment from the dollars we would free up. It worked.

Of course there were other challenges along the way and yes, we did shed a few tears. But we also had a ton of fun. And thanks to a group of dedicated technology team members and other colleagues, I don’t think I ever felt that my hair was on fire.

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