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Empowered: How CIOs Are Connecting Community With Customers

This excerpt from the new book Empowered, by Forrester's Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, explores how CIOs are supporting "Highly Empowered and Resourceful Operatives," aka HEROes, with technology innovation.

[You can learn more about Empowered, the new book by Forrester's Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, here. The chapter excerpted below is entitled "Supporting HEROes with technology innovation."]

Gerald Shields is an insatiably curious chief information officer; he reads fifty books a year. He's always looking for the next big idea, the new important thing around the next corner. That curiosity has paid off for Gerald’s employer, Aflac.

Aflac is a supplemental insurance company, memorable for its talking duck and the wise words of spokesperson Yogi Berra. A lot of people interact with Aflac. Eighty thousand licensed agents sell its products to employers. The company works with four hundred thousand payroll and benefits administrators who serve 50 million individual policyholders.

In 2008, Gerald decided that what was around the next corner was social technology and communities.

Most CIOs don’t think about stuff like this. Gerald's day job is to manage six hundred IT professionals and a $135 million budget. His people operate the systems that keep Aflac's transactions flowing and the networks that bind the company together. They are responsible for keeping Aflac safe from bad-guy attacks on customer data and in compliance with regulations. And he’s good at it; he was on CIO Magazine’s Top 100 CIOs list in 2006 and 2008. But in addition to running these systems, Gerald feels it’s his job to show other executives the power that technology has to serve customers, starting with social technologies. Here’s how he did it.

First he educated his direct reports and Paul Amos, Aflac's North American president and the grandson of the company’s founder. Having convinced Paul, he began to work with the new CMO, Jeff Charney. Paul convened managers from all over the company for a workshop on social technologies. Cross-functional groups developed plans, which went through a rigorous review.

Out of those reviews, Jeff and Gerald selected the two most promising ideas and built communities with technology from community vendor Lithium. The first was a community site for the independent sales associates called The Buzz. With eighty thousand field people selling thousands of deals per month, it’s important to give these independent agents a way to connect to each other and to their sales, service, and marketing support teams. On The Buzz, they can get and share information and help, exchange views and experiences, and interact with Aflac executives, including the head of customer service and Gerald. Each month, 28 hundred associates visit or make a contribution.

The second community, called Duck Pond, serves Aflac's two hundred thousand online billing and payroll administrator customers in the United States. Payroll administrators are a group that needs friends, since they typically slave away in human resources or finance with few internal peers. Duck Pond helps these professionals connect and share their experiences and concerns, Aflac-related or not. For Aflac, Duck Pond is a great way to serve these customers while building loyalty. In Gerald’s words, "We don’t want you to think of Aflac as just a supplemental insurance company.We want you to say, 'Wait a minute. I’m on Duck Pond all the time.' "

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