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Management Strategies

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Unum's Kathy Owen Manages Large-Scale Tech Change

En route to becoming Unum’s Global CIO, Kathy Owen has overseen game-changing technology improvements through several M&As.

Kathy Owen
Reflecting on a career that began when she joined Unum (Chattanooga, Tenn.) predecessor Provident Companies in 1975 right out of college, Kathy Owen concludes that the best preparation for senior leadership has been the opportunity to manage large-scale change. If that's true, she was fortunate in her choice of employer.

During the course of Owen's career, the company has gone through many mergers and acquisitions. M&A activity peaked in the 1990s, during which Provident acquired the group medical and dental business of Healthsource, only to sell it to CIGNA (Philadelphia) two years later; purchased independent subsidiary GENEX; and completed the acquisition of Paul Revere Life Insurance Co. in Worcester, Mass. Then, in 1999, Provident Companies merged with Portland, Maine-based Unum to form Unum Provident. After the company's rebranding as Unum Group (more than $10 billion in 2009 revenue) in 2007, Owen was named CIO of U.S. operations. She became CIO of the carrier's newly minted Global Business Technology (GBT) organization in August 2010, making Owen IT head not only of Unum U.S. but of the carrier's enterprise operations, including Colonial Life and Unum U.K.

Owen says her early days as a programmer at Provident were characterized by incredulity that someone would pay her for having so much fun. "Of course, that appeal wears off and something has to really draw you in," she admits. For Owen that hook was a large field automation project that, when it was undertaken in the early 1980s, was one of the first of its kind. "It was new technology and gave me a chance to see first-hand how technology could transform a particular business operation," she relates. "It was an opportunity to be directly engaged at the point of sale and to understand what went into bringing business in-house."

A few years later Owen faced the challenge of taking responsibility for a legacy policy administration replacement initiative. "That taught me ... how important it is to have alignment with all the stakeholders and how actively change has to be planned and managed," she says. "It was a defining moment for me."

Owen also points to her M&A experience as shaping her managerial acumen. "With a stroke of a pen, you have lost all your organizational presence; you ... have to requalify yourself," she says. "Information is scarce, ambiguity is abundant and there are extremely high expectations. Such times show the importance of personal resilience and decisive leadership."

Owen gleans another big lesson from the dot-com era, during which demand for IT professionals was high. "We had had very low attrition rates, and they increased exponentially," Owen recalls. "That taught me that you can never take anything for granted, and it reinforced that technology leaders have to make an investment in workforce strategies to ensure that we have the right level of employee engagement."

Strength in Diversity

Communication and collaboration characterize Owen's approach to leadership and engaging IT professionals. She is a proponent of teamwork that emphasizes strength in diversity of talent and opinion. "You have to know your own limitations and tap into others' abilities to compensate for weakness in any area," she counsels. "It's also exciting ... where team members can see and make use of each other's strengths."

That kind of teamwork came together on a grand scale with the development of Simply Unum, the company's integrated product and service platform, which launched in August 2007. "It was an example of uniting large numbers of people around one very specific goal and blending new technology with existing technology to accomplish something we'd never done before," Owen says. "This was the initiative where I saw all of the component parts come together in the most successful way."

The success of Simply Unum has led to its expanded use across the enterprise, Owen reports. "We have continued to build on the platform and added other products, including an enhanced disability offering that will enable more flexible funding mechanisms for employers," she says.

Next for Simply Unum is what Owen calls the significant extension of the platform to the U.K. market. In this respect, Unum's new GBT is aligned with the company's growth trajectory. "It's a logical evolution, and one very much aligned with corporate objectives to leverage the intellectual capital and technology capabilities as best we can to help the entire corporation," Owen explains.

The GBT provides a tight organizational context for uniting aspects of Unum's enterprise technology capabilities, according to Owen. "It brought together all of the business functions that supported delivery and gave us a great deal more business knowledge," she says. "It has helped us think about how best to deliver what we need to from a more global perspective."

Unum has isolated all of its production and maintenance activities within one group, resulting in a 50 percent increase in system availability in summer 2010, Owen reports. A decline in production issues in turn led to an increase in productivity of more than 10 percent. Owen says the IT organization now operates on a ratio of 60/40 development to maintenance. "The resulting reduction of spend on maintenance allows us to reinvest into capability development," she notes.

That reinvestment is reflected in work undertaken at Unum's Carlow, Ireland, development facility, which was established in February 2008. "We opened up that facility as a contingency to workforce challenges we see down the road," Owen explains, adding that Unum plans to grow the facility, which now has 60 employees, over the next five years.

The Carlow development center also has a leading role in Unum's new Innovation Center. Formally launched in 2010, the Innovation Center serves as a catalyst for transformational opportunities, helping link business planning and development to IT strategies, according to Owen. "It's another way we're providing a path for innovation that aligns with where the business is trying to go," she says.

Kathy OwenJay LevineMark ShowersPete AtwaterRichard ConnellKelly HallGreg SchwartzRon Boyd

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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