Transcript 

This podcast is sponsored by PA Consulting, the company that’s bringing ingenuity to life. As strategies, technologies, and innovation collide, PA creates opportunity from complexity. Their diverse teams of experts – including strategists, designers, engineers, scientists, and consultants – combine innovative thinking and breakthrough use of technologies to help clients progress further, faster. PA. Bringing ingenuity to life.  

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Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. And this is a very special season where we take you inside the C-suite of big organizations. In each episode, we’ll interview a different C-level leader to talk about how they connect to innovation teams. I’m your host, Kaitlin Milliken from Innovation Leader. 

Rajeev Ronanki: Today, we’ll sit down with Rajeev Ronanki, Anthem’s Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer. Anthem is one of the largest health insurance companies in the US, with over 43 million members as of 2020. The care provider is also the largest for-profit healthcare company in the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. With $121 billion in revenue, the company is currently ranked 29 in the Fortune 500.  

As Chief Digital Officer, Rajeev strives to make the healthcare provider an AI-first organization. That involves working heavily with data and weaving AI into company processes. According to Rajeev, more personalized information about members can help the company build models to provide proactive and targeted advice to keep people healthy. 

We’ll take a deeper dive with Rajeev after this break. 

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Kaitlin Milliken: Innovation at large organizations is hard. And sometimes, you just need a little extra help. That can be in the form of advisors, trainers, professional services firms, or software to track and accelerate your innovation journey. We know there are a lot of options out there, so we created our 2021 Showcase Series. In this two-session event, the top innovation consultancies and software providers will give a quick, 2-minute pitch of their offering. Then you can join in for a breakout session where you can see a demo in action. 

This is a no-pressure environment. No one is getting your email after to send you a million follow ups. So you get a chance to see what’s out there and what might be a good fit for your team. This event will be online on March 11 and 18 from 11am-12:30pm Eastern. Register for free at innovationleader.com/showcase2021. Now back to the show. 

[MUSIC] 

Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back, with Rajeev Ronanki, the Chief Digital Officer of Anthem. During the conversation, Rajeev discusses how his team approaches large data sets, the skills needed to turn data into digital solutions, and how that can improve healthcare outcomes. He also shares tips for innovators tasked with digital transformation.

So you’re the Chief Digital Officer at anthem, can you talk a little bit about that role and what it entails?

Rajeev Ronanki: As one of the leading health insurance companies in the country, Anthem has got tremendous amounts of data, lots of precautions to safeguard the privacy and security of that data. But it’s also a tremendous asset. We can gain insights from that data. We can build predictive models based on that data, and ultimately use the power of data and the insights and the predictive models to improve people’s health. Up until now, healthcare has largely been a reactive, retrospective system where we treated people when they got sick. We for the first time ever have the opportunity to look ahead, forecast what might happen in a person’s future health care journey, and then take preemptive, proactive, personalized steps to make sure that they stay healthy, and avoid being sick altogether. My role is to facilitate our company, you know, to take advantage of that and build in the capabilities, the talent, the mindsets the culture for us to pull it off.

Kaitlin Milliken: I was talking to someone at John Hancock, who also works in insurance, and they were mentioning that right now with COVID-19, a big predictor of people’s ability to recover quickly is their health before they get sick. I was wondering if the priorities or what your team is working on these days — if that’s changed at all since the start of the pandemic and how it compares to your priorities before?

Rajeev Ronanki: It gave us an opportunity to say, “What are the things that we can accelerate?” And we looked at it as the way in which we work. Now we’re all on Zoom and remote. So that changed the nature of how we work together. The way in which we now prioritize and create capabilities for our customers, as you know, has also changed. Not that it wasn’t the case before COVID, but a lot of what we’ve been doing the last few months is making digital and virtual care options available to our consumers.

In the peak of the crisis, a lot of the consumers, patients couldn’t get to hospitals. Hospitals are filled to capacity, whether it’s ICUs or regular hospitals, they’re at capacity. So instead, could we connect doctors to patients virtually? Could we provide more information, data and insights to our consumers and to our doctors so that the care could be handled virtually remotely better than it was in person? And then make that experience seamless. 

Virtual care has always been available to our consumers and our providers. It wasn’t something that was used at scale with COVID. You know, obviously, that took off at scale. And it’s been demonstrated that that could be an equally effective alternative. But rather than think of virtual care, as a stove pipe, digital care as a stove pipe, and in person carries a stove pipe, we were able to seamlessly connect digital, virtual, and physical, and make that end-to-end experience much more seamless for consumers. So those are some things that we were on our way to doing, but COVID significantly accelerated.

Kaitlin Milliken: Yeah, when you were talking about your role, you mentioned that data is a big part of it. And I can imagine with virtual care, there’s different types of data, or perhaps more data available to your team. Can you talk a little bit about what data from that experience you’re looking at?

Rajeev Ronanki: Yeah, so take an example of, let’s say, if one of our consumers has a fever and cough. Normally, you would go see a doctor and describe your symptoms, fill out the forms in the doctor’s office, and the doctor then would do the exam. And based on that, conclude whatever the appropriate diagnosis is. 

And now, if we were doing this with the aid of digital and virtual solutions and capabilities, what we first do is have the patient in this case record their symptoms using one of our solutions, as an example there’s an app called Sydney Care, which allows our consumers to triage their symptoms. So they can say, well, all the typical questions that a doctor might ask. “How long have you had the symptoms? When did they first develop? How severe is it?” Based on that questionnaire, we’re able to compare the symptoms of one user to others that are like that in our database, and then form a hypothesis on possible next steps. And the next step could be, “Sounds like it’s something that requires a physician to have a look at.” 

So then we can connect in that particular user to a doc via, you know, text chat, or we can have them connect in via video and have a telemedicine visit. Or, if appropriate, they can go see them in-person. But in all cases, whatever was done before, so that symptoms that were triaged, using our triage mechanism, is now made available to the doc so that they don’t have to start from scratch and ask all the same questions, have them fill out the paperwork. They already know what the artificial intelligence or machine learning algorithms are telling the doc. So they can pick it up from there and quickly get to the next steps. If the diagnosis in that case was flu, then we’re able to keep track of “Well, was that diagnosis, right? What happened post-diagnosis? How quickly did they recover?” And continually then keep track of it so that the next time someone has similar symptoms and has a recovery, compare the two events and see, you know, what could be learned from the collective dataset data and the insights that we’re getting from all of our patients across the spectrum. 

Kaitlin Milliken: I do want to circle back and talk about AI and machine learning and a little bit. But first, we’re in a really interesting moment where a lot of the folks that we’ve talked to across industries may have been behind when it comes to digital and have really ramped up their efforts in a pinch. You know, everyone was forced to accommodate some level of work from home, people are more ready to adopt whatever the digital solutions might be. But Anthem considers itself a digital-first enterprise. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be digital-first?

Rajeev Ronanki: Yeah, digital-first for us means that we’re able to use data, insights, and predictive technologies, and apply that to all parts of our business. Whether that’s a core business processes that operate our company, like claims or prior authorizations, or billing or payments or any of those kinds of core value streams of our company. We would like to use data insights and exponential technologies to automate those processes. And so in automating those processes, we can devote more of our time to matters of health, and improving people’s health trajectories. So for us digital-first means the use of data and automation at scale, to free up enough human capacity to focus on the things that matter, and ultimately deliver exceptional experiences to our customers.

Kaitlin Milliken: Getting to the point where it’s truly digital-first, that requires some transformation. What had to go in to make digital-first a reality?

Rajeev Ronanki: It starts with our people and mindsets. The most important thing about the company that’s undergoing a digital transformation really comes down to: “Do we have the mindset? Do we have the talent? And do we have a customer-first sort of focus in the way that we need to approach this?” So we have that with our entire leadership team, with our entire team of people at Anthem. We’re extremely customer-focused. And so that was always a given. So we have that tailwind.

We always had immense amounts of data. How could we harness that data connected into the right stakeholders, the right time to drive some of these digital first mindsets into our stakeholders into our communities? To do that, we then essentially created a platform that we call Anthem’s Digital Platform. And this platform essentially harnesses all of Anthem’s data and insights, and uses machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to create insights and predictions from raw data, and then makes those predictions and data and insights available to our stakeholders who then act on those. And then we continually learn from every action that takes place. So that platform was developed in the early stages, and it continuously evolves as we build more capabilities on that. Where we are now is right at the point where we can scale this to every part of our business so that we can get that exponential advantage, and more importantly, drive personalization for all of our stakeholders and improve the experience of making healthcare ultimately, a seamless end-to-end experience for all of our stakeholders.

Kaitlin Milliken: Especially when it comes to AI and working with data, did you have to hire new people, or were there folks already around to do that type of work?

Rajeev Ronanki: That was a combination, Kaitlin. We definitely hired in lots of new talent. But the average composition of a team consists of employees that are skilled in our data and Anthem processes. Engineering teams that understand how to develop applications and solutions. AI and machine learning data science teams that can take data and create predictive algorithms that can be integrated into our solutions. Process-design, process-change experts. Subject matter experts on a given process. For, let’s say, we’re looking to improve or automate processes like utilization management or care management. We want people that know what these processes do, and how to change them, and avoid any sort of common pitfalls and traps. And then most importantly, human-centered design is a key factor skill set, which is designing solutions from a customer lens in and making sure that we’re not just sort of automating the things that we know and then just take an inside out approach. We always start with the consumer lens in and then say, “How should this be organized to deliver a great experience for them? Those are all the skill sets. It’s engineering. It’s machine learning and AI. It’s human-centered design. It’s process. It’s subject matter expertise. You put all that together into a team that can deliver the solutions.

Kaitlin Milliken: What are some of those pitfalls or don’ts that teams typically encounter when they’re trying to improve their digital strategy?

Rajeev Ronanki: One of the common things, for example, is in healthcare, it’s a highly regulated environment. What seems like an obvious common sense thing to do, there may be several legal and regulatory reasons not to do it. Knowing some of those things upfront and scoping what could be achieved appropriately is one of our key lessons, which is don’t boil the ocean and then solve for the ultimate perfection. Start small. Set sort of an ambitious end-game agenda. Learn along the way. Fail. Pivot fast, and quickly get to the right solution, versus assuming that we can solve for everything that’s out three to five years from now.  

Kaitlin Milliken: What were the reasons for that shift from sort of being technology-focused, to moving outward at Anthem?

Rajeev Ronanki: If you have a defined business problem, and you say, “Here’s all the things that I would like the technology to do,” technology and engineering teams can go make that happen. But there’s also an emerging trend where with digital technologies, in particular, which harness data insights in AI, predictive technologies to really say, “What are new business models that now are possible that were never possible before because of the technology and the way we can deliver a new capability and new experience?” 

Whereas before with human resources, it limited ability to reach a scale of people, right? We had humans reaching out and that had certain constraints in terms of how many humans we could hire and reach out. But digitally, we can reach any number of people, the cost of each outreach is zero, and better yet, each outreach is personalized. Kaitlin’s engagement would look different than mine, and look different than any other 43 million plus members. Imagine if humans had to do it. We couldn’t really hire that many people and do this fast enough to reach that many people. With engagement powered by digital technologies, we can do that for the first time ever. So with that kind of engagement, that means, with every interaction, we’re getting more insights. With more insights, we can make that experience even better and more personalized. And with more personalization means that people generally have better satisfaction. And that satisfaction in turn creates sort of a virtuous cycle, where you might be telling other people that the anthem experience was so great. Others might be more motivated to join Anthem. And the more people that join Anthem, the more data we get, more insights, more personalization. So it’s a continuous virtuous cycle that we’re driving, which was not possible, even five or 10 years ago.

Kaitlin Milliken: Great. I do want to transition over to some more advice-based questions. So first, what are some helpful tips for folks that have been tasked with doing digital transformation at their company, especially if this is the first time that they’ve really pursued that type of new digital experience?

Rajeev Ronanki: Start with the people first. Start with leadership alignment, educating and laying the groundwork for what digital transformation is going to entail. Scouring the seed leaders, if you will, exceptional talent that will carry the torch on the onset of that journey. It doesn’t have to be a large team. In our case, there was probably a team of 10 or 12 that we hired from the market, combined with Anthem expertise that had the right mindset. 

For us, that was the most important thing, which was we needed talent that would challenge the status quo, not take no for the answer and have that spirit of saying, “Yep, we can overcome this. Looks challenging. Sounds hard, but it’s doable.” So once that seed exists, then it’s about laying out an ambitious but measured and practical agenda could be that you scope, the agenda, and the, let’s say, the ambition towards improving consumer experiences, in which case, you can say, “Well, let’s segment that into what do we want to impact at what time? How quickly and get it going?”

And then once it gets going, learn from what’s working, what isn’t. Don’t be afraid to kill things that aren’t working. Treat every initiative as an opportunity to learn versus defining a binary success or failure. But just once you learn, then you’re able to factor those learnings into the next project, next pilot, and then have a plan to integrate and scale. So frequently, what we see is people start something with no particular end-game of scaling and integrating, flip that on the head and say, someone has a new idea. We said, “Well, how would we take that idea and scale it so that all 43 million active members might have access to it? How would we integrate it into the fabric of healthcare, right, which is very complex?” 

And once we answer those two questions, the first step might be a very small step. So we know that the first step succeeds, there’s a second exponential step that needs to follow in its footsteps. But eventually, we know what the end state is going to be. So having that end state in mind, while starting is super important.  

Always be relentlessly focused on business value creation, which is the end of the day, this isn’t about technology. If we aren’t delivering the results that our business needs, and the business results are always the same, which is improve our efficiency, drive growth, and most of all simplify and improve the stakeholder experiences. If we’re not sort of moving the needle on that, then obviously we’re not working on the right things. So for any business, and whatever the appropriate business metrics are, just focusing on that. Showing progress on that is going to be key.

Kaitlin Milliken: Right, and say, one of our listeners is really interested in moving into a CDO role. What are some of the things they can do to get to that point in their career?

Rajeev Ronanki: I don’t know that the CDO role itself is something you can say, “Yeah, well, I want to be there. So what do I need to do to get there?” I think it’s a combination of doing the right fundamentals, eventually, those fundamentals translating into an outcome that kind of is in-line with whatever aspires to be. The foundation of being digitally savvy, and tech savvy is important. Firsthand knowledge and sort of understanding all of the capabilities of technology, the state of technology, and what state of maturity any given technology is in, I think it’d be important to know and understand. Having a good network that you can draw on, that you can learn from.  

What I found is creating purpose-driven teams is tremendously helpful. Having a common purpose. And a mission helps teams to band together and give them that sense of overcoming obstacles and challenges and not taking no for an answer. Really just being curious, intensely curious about what’s possible, and how what is possible could be translated into something pragmatic and achievable for business outcomes. If you put all these things together, I think you’ve got the makings of doing this role some justice. Most of all, humility and knowing that what you know is only a fraction of the knowledge that’s available generally. I think it’s a great mindset to have and continually sort of being a student of what needs to change serves most people well, certainly it served me well.

Kaitlin Milliken: So keeping value creation front and center can help teams test new technology, leverage data in new ways, and upgrade their digital strategy. 

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]  

You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and edited by me, Kaitlin Milliken, special thanks to Rajeev Ronanki for sharing his insights. For more tips and tricks from inside the C-suite, be sure to subscribe to this special season of Innovation Answered. You can find our show wherever you get your podcasts and on our website, innovationleader.com/podcast. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you soon.

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