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Thrivent Financial SVP and CIO Holly Morris Focuses On The People Behind The Technology

Thrivent Financial for Lutherans Senior Vice President and CIO Holly Morris' people-focused technology transformation is taking the fraternal benefit society into the age of information democracy.

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It would be fair to say that the career of Holly Morris, CIO of Minneapolis-based Thrivent Financial ($71.3 billion in assets under management), demonstrates what one can achieve with a combination of raw talent and a superb business and technology education. But it wouldn't be enough.

Morris' accomplishments are indeed impressive. As an SVP of technology at American Express Global Financial Services she led the charge to transform the technology while reducing IT unit costs and increasing speed to market; and at ReliaStar Financial she drove migration to component-based development, resulting in a 50 percent reduction in delivery time while establishing an enterprise architecture model for future development. But while Morris' technology and business roots run deep, she sees her success as an outgrowth of a liberal arts education crowned by a master's degree and Ph.D. in anthropology.

People, process and technology were relevant to Morris' archaeological specialty long before computers were invented, she notes. And her anthropological insight is likely to be more relevant than ever as she drives forward a technology transformation at Thrivent to support the membership involvement and growth objectives of an organization that is not just a Fortune 500 company, but also a fraternal benefit society. "My liberal arts education taught me how to be a critical thinker and a good communicator," Morris explains. "Later, in my graduate work, I learned there are common techniques for understanding cultural and information systems."

Holly Morris, Thrivent Financial

In striving to better understand vanished cultures, Morris also learned the importance of data. "As a grad student I used computers to manage and crunch vast amounts of data and learned database management and the use of statistics software," she relates.

Morris' current mission also has an archaeological dimension, given Thrivent's technology environment. "We've had to do quite a bit of excavation to get to a long-term blueprint and road map," she quips. "We have several aging systems that have slowed our ability not only to create innovative products and services, but also to create a seamless experience for our customers."

Thrivent's strategic goals, according to Morris, are to grow membership through dramatically higher customer satisfaction and to engage many more of the fraternal organization's current members in two ways: "One is to increase the number of products or the amount of assets they ask us to manage, through creating a financial plan and a long-term relationship with them to help them prepare for financial needs, and especially retirement," she relates. "The other is to help our members engage in their communities through our fraternal activities."

Those goals, Morris believes, require delivering capabilities in line with a concept of "information democracy," wherein consumers enjoy a more customized experience through greater access to information. "That paradigm shift is requiring us to work across our divisions in a different way to create a more holistic view, provide all the information customers want and let them use it the way they want to."

That paradigm embraces members who don't have financial advisers, for whom Thrivent has introduced technology-driven concepts such as its Financial Fitness Club, which enables members to collaboratively support each other's financial health in a fashion analogous to Weight Watchers; and the Financial Advice Center, where members can get professional financial advice online or over the telephone. "The beauty of the Thrivent business model is that we can focus on all Lutherans, not just the more affluent ones, because we don't have to get the same profit margin as some of our colleagues do in the public, for-profit world," Morris says. "We can come up with innovative programs that not only make a margin but also really serve people."

Achieving Buy-In

To achieve buy-in for the new vision, Morris says she engaged the business in what she calls business capability planning. "It is a methodology that takes us from very high-level cartoon drawings of the capabilities the business will need in the future, and then can drill down into very detailed architectural blueprints focusing on the technical services needed," she comments. "We needed to explicitly show how systems upgrades supported the business transformation."

While the business capability planning process was, in some respects, an exercise in persuasion, it reflected collaborative due diligence rather than resistance on the part of the business. "We have very strong partnerships with our business -- we don't have a we/they mentality because of the institutional values we share of treating everybody with dignity and respect and valuing them as an individual," Morris comments. "We are a faith-based organization, and our internal culture embodies the same values that we observe with our members -- we are a very caring organization, and I think that helps us."

Morris' plan identifies five major modernization initiatives, including the implementation of new sales and marketing capabilities, life and annuity policy admin replacement, enhancement of member security capabilities, increased IT effectiveness, and an overhaul of member information and documentation capabilities.

So far Morris' team has replaced an aging legacy document workflow system with an IBM/FileNet (Costa Mesa, Calif.) system and is in the process of decommissioning the old application. The time horizon for full policy administration system replacements is seven years, and Morris says she has set a goal for her organization to reach CMMI Level 3 and ITIL Level 4 within 18 months.

Thrivent has completed pilots of a sales and marketing system that gives financial representatives more-robust tools to track customer contact and ensure a high level of service and follow-up, according to Morris, who is not at liberty to name the vendors involved. "It captures a great deal of information that now would reside on reps' individual desktops instead of in a centralized place so that it can be used to serve the member in other ways," she says. The system, which will go live in the first quarter of 2008, will be accompanied by a Callidus (San Jose) compensation system that Morris says will support Thrivent's new field model, which organizes reps into teams.

Morris' team also is on track to release a data utility that will serve as the single source of shareable data across all applications in early 2008, timed to the sales and marketing platform release. "It will start with customer, contract and financial representative data, and it is kind of like a reusable utility where it's a very robust capability to deliver extremely clean data for multiple purposes," Morris says.

Morris' change vision also includes her IT staff. But in that case transformation does not equate to replacement. "Valuing people is a cornerstone, and I believe that the people who know the systems and have done a wonderful job in the past are the best resource for completing the transformation we're in the middle of," she remarks. "We're investing in a great deal of training and development and being more specific about career paths. We're also exploring alternatives to create the kind of flexibility in our sourcing to free our employees for strategic work and get other partners to help us with things that are really more about the past."

Holly Morris

Position:Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans
Size of IT Organization: 570
Career: Before joining Thrivent, Morris was SVP of technologies/global financial services for American Express (New York) from 2001 to 2005. Between 1997 and 2001 she held senior leadership positions at ReliaStar/ING Financial Services, and from 1993 to 1997 she was CIO of the City of Minneapolis.
Technology Philosophy: "It's important to keep up with what's going on in technology. You can't delegate all of that you have to be capable, when necessary, to roll up your sleeves and get into the detail at any given time."
Hobbies/Pastimes: Morris continues to pursue her interest in archaeology, keeping in touch with colleagues in the field and visiting sites. She also enjoys cycling and hiking.
Last Book Read: "Truman," by David McCullough.
Fun Fact: Morris lived through a napalm attack while on an archeological dig on Cyprus in 1974.

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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