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Handren Aims to Make Mutual of Omaha's IT 'World-Class'

Former USAA executive Tim Handren takes a purposeful approach to Mutual of Omaha's technology architecture and IT capabilities in support of fulfilling the company's potential as an integrated financial institution.

Mutual of Omaha has a rich cultural legacy. But it also has significant legacy technology systems and processes, acknowledges Tim Handren, who became the firm's executive vice president of information services in November 2008. For the Mutual to fulfill its potential as an integrated financial services company, its technology organization needed to approach its task differently than it had in the past, according to Handren. To communicate that imperative in no uncertain terms, he began his "Information Services Strategy" statement with the following sentence: "We will become a world-class IT organization."

The Omaha, Neb.-based company already has embarked on defining a service-oriented architecture expressed in business rather than technical terms, Handren relates. "We could talk about databases and all the underlying servers, transport protocols, etc., or we could simply say, 'If we build this application for the Web, we can reuse it on the desktop for the customer service rep,' " he explains. "People understand that language."

'Purposeful Target'

Handren emphasizes a deliberate approach to the target state defined for the company's technology architecture. "We're going to hold all of our development and enhancement activity against that architecture," he comments. "In some cases architecture just happens; we're going to make sure that architecture is a purposeful target."

Handren is taking a similarly purposeful approach with key IT disciplines. For example, project management capabilities that in the past had been spread around organizational silos will be centralized. "We're going to create a core competency around project and portfolio management," he says.

Mutual of Omaha's ($4.2 billion in annual revenue) IT organization also will standardize and centralize testing, creating a reusable library of test cases, according to Handren. Process engineering will become a core competency for the organization, he relates. "We've done one end-to-end process review at this point, and it's been very productive," Handren remarks.

When it comes to the skill sets of IT associates, Handren says, he is driving a departure from the paradigm of skills matched to legacy systems. "We're trying to create more of a culture of fungibility," he explains. "We don't want everybody to become a watered-down generalist. But for those who want to learn multiple skills, we will give them the opportunity to learn and try new things. So we're going to create opportunities for folks to re-skill to the extent that they want, and at the same time we will bring down the total operations cost as a percentage of budget."

In many respects, Handren sees his task as one of liberating latent strengths within Mutual of Omaha's culture. He cites a recent employee survey that enjoyed 93 percent participation and revealed that 90 percent of employees are proud to work at the company. "That's a great place to start," Handren comments. "We already have a strong culture, but what I want to foster here is something that feels like a startup company within the 100-year-old institution."

Toward that end Handren has been conducting quarterly town hall meetings with the entire IT workforce and encouraging an open dialogue that departs from a hierarchical style of communication. "We're trying to deliver a consistent message about the targets we're aiming at, telling people that it's OK to take risks, that we want them to challenge the status quo and reach beyond what has been accepted in the past," he says.

One specific improvement over past performance that Handren has projected is to arrive at a ratio of 45 percent new development to 55 percent maintenance. To those who might think that is excessively ambitious, Handren responds, "You've got to aim high."

"If we set the target to get there in two years and we get there in three, I'll view that as a victory," Handren adds. "But it's not just a pipe dream; I can tell you that this year we're already going to move that [ratio] between 2 and 5 percent."

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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