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Getting Prudential ready for the future

Prudential S'pore chief talks about the transformations the company is undergoing.

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The new office at Marina One bears an open hot-desking concept where 900 employees are spread across two floors - with no individual dustbins.

HE has been busying himself for the past 12 months with the mammoth task of "future-proofing" insurer Prudential Singapore since he took over as chief of the 86-year-old company.

His to-do list is exhaustive if the two-hour interview is any indication, but what Wilfred Blackburn has done and is still keeping at can be summed up into three key aspects: To transform the workplace, the people, and the culture - not an easy feat in any case.

But the changes are necessary, he told The Business Times, adding that they pave the way for the insurer to meet the needs of customers in the years ahead.

Perhaps they are also a reflection of Mr Blackburn's management philosophy, one that is influenced by top leaders in the world, particularly Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

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"Let's make the right long-term decision every day and out of that, just like what happened in Singapore, you get lots and lots of good results - not by doing tactical short-term things but by doing the right, long-term things."

One thing Mr Blackburn has going for him is that he is building from a position of strength.

Industry observers will point out that Prudential Singapore has been one of the earliest adopters of technology - it was the earliest to integrate technology in its agents' point-of-sales tools.

INVESTMENTS IN TECHNOLOGY

But in recent years, while its competitors rush to thump their chests about digitalisation, Prudential has been quietly ramping up investments in technology, especially over the past year.

On the back-end, the insurer has invested in robotic process automation that has helped save time and money by removing manual calculations and reports - work that used to take days to do can now be completed in a matter of minutes.

"Our actuaries, for example, they can spend time now analysing and interpreting the numbers rather than just producing them, and this is made possible through a lot of investments in technology," explained Mr Blackburn.

In August, the insurer rolled out an industry-first chatbot, askPRU, that is based on machine learning and can provide its agents with real-time data specific to their customers' policies. Already, more than half of the insurer's 4,500 agents are using the tool and it has resulted in a 24 per cent reduction in the number of calls the company has to handle, in turn improving efficiency and productivity.

Mr Blackburn cites this as an example of how the company is trying to make sure its agents are equipped with the best and fastest tools so that they can address customers' needs promptly.

"We're just about to launch online claims submissions so people no longer send in bits of paper and do everything online instead. As a result, we'll be able to pay claims faster as well," he added.

Then there is PRU For You, an online community portal launched in July where nearly 4,000 customers share ideas and give direct feedback to the insurer.

"Instead of spending months and months researching something, we can now just ask our customers. For example, one of our favourite topics is the Integrated Shield Plan. We weren't quite sure which features customers will like and which they won't, so we just ask them over the portal and overnight, you get lots and lots of direct feedback."

This brings consumers closer to the insurer and enables the company to make decisions more quickly, said Mr Blackburn.

He pointed out that Prudential plans to partner other organisations that are experts in areas including big data, data analytics, blockchain and artificial intelligence to improve overall operations.

The tricky bit in this whole transformation is the shifting of mindsets and culture.

To this end, the insurer has tweaked the way staff are rewarded and incentivised - employees are now getting the senior positions because they can lead in addition to having the technical ability, rather than just having the latter, said Mr Blackburn.

Also, 70 per cent of the senior executives' objectives are now based on leadership and driving innovation, while the other 30 per cent is related to business figures.

In the past year, new roles have been created and the insurer has brought in a number of individuals from other industries as part of its efforts in strengthening the existing team. This includes the new IT chief, who is from the fast-moving consumer goods industry, as well as a customer experience head who previously worked at Changi Airport.

Besides being innovative, employees are encouraged to be adaptive. Of the 800 employees, about 90 have moved to a completely new role and Mr Blackburn said this dovetails into the importance of building new capabilities.

He also introduced a slew of initiatives including flexible work arrangements that promote work-life balance, longer maternity and paternity leave, and sponsored education.

"If we take care of our people, our people will take care of our customers."

STAND-UP MEETINGS

As someone who is not a fan of bureaucracy and one who firmly believes in better time management, Mr Blackburn dislikes long meetings as they can be "an expensive waste of resources", so stand-up meetings are highly encouraged.

"People tend not to spend longer than necessary in a meeting when they've got to stand. Plus they tend not to show up unnecessarily if it's not comfortable, right?"

The other thing the company does now is to rank in terms of relevance why a person needs to attend the meeting.

"Consistent with that is absolute removal internally of decisions being made based on hierarchy and silos. We say people shouldn't make decisions because of their ranks, it should be because they're the closest to it."

Asked if this has ruffled some feathers, Mr Blackburn smiled and said that it is "most likely" given that this "would not fit in the culture of some companies in Singapore".

And because he prefers a more facilitative style of management, the chief said he rarely makes decisions on a business matter.

"What I try to do as much as possible is to ensure I've got the right experts and that they're talking together. If necessary, I'd facilitate so that together, they'd be able to come to the right decision," he explained.

"There are so many things that we're doing and so many things happening everywhere, I can't be making all the decisions." .

More importantly, Mr Blackburn said he does not want his "personal preferences and biases to get in the way of making the right decisions".

The last piece of the puzzle in the whole transformation process is the physical environment at the insurer's new office at Marina One.

It is with this in mind that the new office bears an open hot-desking concept where 900 employees are spread across two floors. To facilitate employees' mobility, they will have wireless headsets to answer calls as well as "follow-me printing".

Under the new office plan, individual dustbins have also been dumped - a topic that has raised eyebrows and generated quite a bit of talk inside and outside of the office.

"We're now sharing lots of things. In this new kind of environment, it's not like we need 900 waste paper baskets. We don't need 900 coffee machines. That was symbolic," said Mr Blackburn, adding that it was a good symbol of Prudential's move towards a more collaborative environment "where we have enough of what we need and we share what we need".

"If you create an environment where people can expect you to reward and recognise working together across functions, across levels, then you're more likely to get the creative solutions. So what we tried to do is to remove all the barriers and the blocks, whether visible or invisible, towards collaboration."

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