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Data migration is always tricky

Interview with Michel Kennis, ICT Director at Europ Assistance Belgium

To say that the old contract management system had outlived itself is quite an understatement. Time and again Michel Kennis, ICT Director at Europ Assistance Belgium, and his team had to engineer specific add-ons, or ‘satellite solutions’ as they call it. An untenable situation. After an extensive search, Europ Assistance opted for a SaaS-platform. "My previous experience as a consultant taught me that every migration is tricky, but we're doing fine."

Before his move to Europ Assistance Belgium, Michel Kennis spent the majority of his career - twenty years - as a consultant. “The last stop on that exciting journey was as a Unit Manager at Capgemini. Ten years ago, it was time to see the other side, to experience business from a client’s perspective. Eventually, I chose for Europ Assistance.” Why? “The organization had the right size, not too big and not too small, and the nature of the activity sounded good: providing assistance. Who wouldn't want that?” And so he started working there as an ICT Director in 2013.

What insights as a consultant proved to be particularly useful?

Michel Kennis: “The world of consultancy and the client universe both have their pros and cons, that goes without saying. As a Unit Manager, I was de facto a manager of managers and also involved in sales. I didn't enjoy that as much as being hands-on. At Europ Assistance, I immediately had a good feeling: a midsize company (about 200 employees), a fairly flat structure, and I clicked with colleagues right from the start... When you want to make a decision at Europ Assistance, it doesn't take months. Of course, we're not completely free either, as we're part of a group, but there is generally an action-driven dynamic here.”

“What I brought to Europ Assistance from my previous role, was my expertise in project management: how to approach problems, what makes a good team, how to organize yourself, and how to follow up on everything. Above all, I found what I was looking for: with a relatively small team of twelve to thirteen people, I am in the thick of the action. In other words, every day there are 101 different things on my plate, which is extremely fun and sometimes exhausting. I see myself as a coach to my team, who, by the way, are top-notch. As IT is naturally intertwined with the business, my experience in project management also comes in handy at that level. In any case, it makes my job particularly diverse.”

You talk about a lot of different projects, but the implementation of an all-in-one SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) insurance platform has an exceptional scope, doesn’t it?

“It is indeed a project of considerable magnitude.”

“Customized or tweaked solutions that fit your needs certainly have their advantages, but the downside is that you can no longer make adjustments or take advantage of product developments”

Can you elaborate on that scope?

“Sure. Europ Assistance’s business focuses on assistance, and to do so the management of contracts (travel, roadside assistance, home & family) is key. We used to manage these contracts in two different systems, because from our headquarters in Brussels we also take care of the Luxembourg market. So two systems, both of which were so outdated that upgrades of the underlying systems were no longer possible. An untenable situation. And so we entered the market in search of possible packages through a fairly classic RFI/RFP process. Eventually, we landed at a SaaS-platform.”

Why did you chose a SaaS-solution and what elements played an important role?

To be honest, all the available packages offer more or less what we need. Insurance products, contract management ... they all do it. What was important is that we favored a SaaS solution. Customized or tweaked solutions that fit your needs certainly have their advantages, but the downside is that you can no longer make adjustments or take advantage of product developments. The provider we selected offered a clear SaaS vision from the start. Moreover, there was also a personal match with the people at the company, which is not insignificant for a project that will run during several years. And last but not least: the price. That is not a detail, because the available solutions usually have a dimension that fits large multinationals rather than a Belgian implementation on the Belgian market.” ( smiles)

"When projects stall or fail, it's often because of data migration"

Did the legacy IT system impose significant limitations in terms of product development?

“Not really. But all the new features and legal obligations that were imposed on us were becoming a problem. What we lacked were the necessary APIs to further digitalize our processes. Many integrations were still file-based, and there were only a few APIs that allowed us to build a digital solution around the package. Self-service activities that we now offer on our website for our clients and on our extranet for our brokers were impossible in the old system.”

Did you have experience with data migration and what was specific about this one?

“Of course I had been involved in several data migration projects at Capgemini. That experience taught me it’s always tricky. When projects stall or fail, it’s often because of data migration. So we were cautious, but that’s also where our SaaS-partner convinced and reassured us during one of the preliminary stages. In the meanwhile, we've already completed our first data migration, and all in all, it went super.”

How did you monitor the migration process?

“The approach was as follows: dump all your data and then we look at the mapping together. They fully manage the mapping from the dump to the new system. Initially, we thought we would have to manipulate the data to achieve the result our Saas-provider, had envisioned, but in practice it was the other way around. Which is a lot better. Of course, it requires a thorough understanding of the entire organization, all processes, and data models, so it took quite some time before we got around to dumping that data.”

What was the data quality like, considering that the systems were very outdated? How did it affect the outcome of the migration?

“Of course, we encountered various challenges. First and foremost: the human factor. Whenever people use systems and manually input data, errors are made. Moreover, there is also improper use of systems. So yes, we had some issues with data quality and improper use, but nearly not as bad as I had expected ( laughs). The B2C migration went smoothly. We decided not to migrate the entire history of Europ Assistance to the Axon package, but only the data that is considered ‘active’ - this limits the amount of data considerably.”

Why did you start with B2C?

“For pragmatic reasons. We knew the SaaS-provider would have to do their utmost to meet our expectations in B2B, because that's where most of the developments were needed. The B2C approach was clearer and also more tangible in the sense that we could immediately take advantage of Axon’s APIs.”

"We are no advocates of revolutionary changes. By which I don't say things don't change"

The transition from a legacy system to a new system is more than IT. It often involves change management.

“That’s very true, and it’s always a tricky part. However, we did decide to keep these changes as limited as possible for our brokers and the outside world. In fact, they still work in the extranet they are familiar with and which we have fine-tuned here and there. An additional reason for not completely changing is that we use the old extranet as a communication tool and Axon offers fewer possibilities in that respect.”

“For the internal teams and the business, the situation was different because they were involved from the beginning. We worked in sprints and at the end of each sprint, it was the business itself, the key users, who did the demo of what we had implemented. That involvement made them feel very good. We could have raised the bar even a bit more by involving the whole department faster, but of course, everyone still has a regular job to do.”

Do employees see the new tool as a help or a hindrance in their work?

“As is the case with any new application, some things are a bit more complex, and others are simpler. And of course, now you sometimes hear ‘ I would have found that faster before’," but hey, what did you expect? ( laughs) Overall, I’m sure the result is quite positive.”

“What we got rid of – luckily! – are the satellite solutions, as I call them. I am talking about the myriad of add-ons and shortcuts we programmed because the previous application had few customization options. Just to give you an example: we had to build something on the side for direct debits, but that became very difficult to manage. We hardly had an overview of everything that had been built over the years. Axon offers us a clear sight and more possibilities.”

Do customers and companies notice a difference?

“The big changes in the back office don’t show at the front – as we have intended ro. We are no advocate of revolutionary changes. By which I don’t say things don’t change. My team is now working with the business to see which processes we can further automate. Think of a better self-service option for the customers or a more structured communication via the sites. So, a small correction to what I just said: step by step, the customer will get to know our additional digital solutions. Deepening the relationship, is what we aim for.”

The other side of Michel Kennis

  • Mr Motorcycle Man

"Don’t be alarmed when Michel Kennis trades in his tailored suit for a motorcycle suit. “I’m not the sportiest of guys, but I like to go out for a ride on my bike.”

  • Mr Quiz Man

“I’m not growing younger, so remembering things is getting a bit harder for me. ( laughs) But I used to be a walking encyclopedia of movies. In a quiz, I could also be a valuable member for answering questions on history, geography, politics… Not sports though.”

  • Mr Perfect

“I don’t have any absolute obsessions. Or maybe I do: my music, my movie and my photo collection must be in tip-top shape. With everything in perfect order. If I still use iTunes? Yes, I still want to own and control what I like, because those streaming services can take anything offline whenever they want.”

Michel's data

  • 3 / I have three kids.
  • 7 / Don’t ask me why, but I like this number.
  • 10 / I just ‘celebrated’ 10 years at Europ Assistance. Already… life goes fast! A lot happened in those 10 years.
  • 17 / ‘17 seconds’ of the Cure, the first album I bought myself .
  • 24 / Michael Winterbottom’s movie ‘24 Hour Party People’ is about my music. And a nice idea!

About data

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