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The CDO Role of Risk Management and Risk Mitigation

Dr Henna Karna

EVP, Chief Data Officer, Partner @ AXA

My values are mission-driven, with an ambition to help accelerate humanity through the advancement in technology. I admire corporations that are anchored in a desire to pay it forward, to create generational impact that will outlast their own existence. The teams I lead are diverse across multiple dimensions, high-impact and tenaciously committed to making our world a better place for the generations who will exceed us. I am always listening.

Transcript

Melissa Campbell:
I’m Melissa Campbell, the Chief Revenue Officer at Tamr, and I’m excited to host today, Dr. Henna Karna, Chief Data and Analytics Officer of AXA XL. Welcome, and congratulations, Dr. Karna, and thank you for joining us today.

Dr. Henna Karna:
It’s very nice to be here and it’s a very nice cause that we’re trying to encourage CDO, so I’m happy to be here.

Melissa Campbell:
That’s awesome. Well, I read up a little bit on your bio in LinkedIn about you, and I’m so impressed with your background. And so, I thought we would just maybe start by having you tell us a little bit about your career. What brought you to data, and how did you end up at AXA XL?

Dr. Henna Karna:
Sure. So career-wise, it’s been an interesting … it’s been a very non-linear career, frankly. I think the basis of it had been mathematics. So my degrees are mathematics. And I would say what I really liked about mathematics was the creative lens of it. So, I find it to be an extremely interesting language, and a very universal language. Can I say it that way? And when I worked on it officially from a research standpoint, it was much more on the emotional intelligence side. And in the early days, the idea of using algorithms or mathematics, or even any quantitative field to understand human behavior was very abnormal at the time. In the early ’90s, it wasn’t something that was expected and assumed. And today, it’s quite the reverse. Today, it’s a world where we’re trying to mathematically model AI, we’re trying to understand the connection of mind and machine. So, it’s an interesting journey that has brought me to much more of a commercial lens of what we’re trying to achieve.

Dr. Henna Karna:
I’m in the space of risk management and risk mitigation. I like to think of it as a mission-driven approach. For me, the most important thing has been you can do mathematics anywhere. And if you can do it from a cause that will make the world a bit safer and smarter, it wakes you up a bit differently. And I often tell my team directly underneath me that data is a transversal language. It’s for anything, you can go to any company and do it, but we choose to do it in this particular industry, in this particular organization because we’re trying to get that hypersensitivity about what’s going to make the world safer. And how do we recover from something, for example right now on a pandemic risk standpoint, or how do we recover from typhoons and earthquakes and so on.

Dr. Henna Karna:
So in my mind, my anticipation has been that we’ll always be a part of a company that is very mission-driven, that has a cause behind it. And AXA XL is very much around that lens. So, I would say parts of the insurance and reinsurance industry maybe has moved away from thinking about itself as a risk mitigation or risk management industry, but at the heart and soul of it and in particularly the nucleus of the data speaks volumes about that, right? It speaks historical lenses around all the things that we’ve gone through as humanity, as the Earth, climate. We talk a lot about climate, a lot about sort of geospatial things that had happened with the Earth.

Dr. Henna Karna:
So there’s lots of things that we learn around safety and mechanisms. For example, I’ll give you… What makes me come to life is a country like Fiji will have very complex risk. It’ll have earthquakes, typhoons. It’ll have… I don’t know. Sort of tsunamis of types all in the space of the organization as the government. And our company would then be able to think about how to help resolve that. We can’t remove the risk, but we can create recovery rates that are much greater and grander from that. That’s what we do.

Melissa Campbell:
No. It’s such an important field, especially being tied to risk and risk management. So are there certain projects, or a project that excites you the most based on what you’re working on right now? Or would that be the Fiji story or?

Dr. Henna Karna:
[inaudible 00:04:30]. Yeah. So, in terms of a project, I would say that what really excites me is language. So, we’re on a digital transformation program. So I lead that here, and that has been… And I think we’re in our third year of the transformation program. And what I would say what’s impressive about it, it’s not a technology place. Some of our success criteria are actually nothing to do with the data, the system, the environment, it’s actually to do with the conversation. And what I mean by that is our customer, our end-consumer, the folks that we’re trying to get more value to, that conversation is starting to change. And when we think about the typical company relationship is very transactional, it’s based on, let’s say, one type of policy or one type of coverage, or we’re trying to help you do A, B and C.

Dr. Henna Karna:
And it’s a point in time that’s typically… We’re business-to-business. So, let’s say, Boeing will need some help on something, they may look at us for one lens of it. And we’re looking to change that conversation dramatically to not be transactional, but to be a trusted partner. So, we can say to Boeing or to, let’s say, Walt Disney, or Amex, something more broadly around, “In your industry, here’s what we’re seeing. Across the risks that you look through, here’s what we deal with” and, “How can we help you be a bit more precise and much more granular to solve some of those risks?”

Dr. Henna Karna:
So, the conversation changes a lot when use data in a different lens and in a much more of a robust lens. And that’s really the art and science behind our digital transformation program. And it’s very exciting. It changes the entire insurance value chain. So typically in insurance we would do… Reserving differently than understanding our claim is different than understanding our underwriting. And when we look at what we’re trying to organize in that conversation, all of these pieces have to come together. So, there isn’t a [inaudible 00:06:27] so deliberate in the data, and it’s actually much more holistic. And it’s quite powerful both for our company, but also for the customers that we support.

Melissa Campbell:
Yeah. It’s quite transformational. I know that’s a cliche word for what you just described, but it is pretty amazing. So, conversely, what do you see as some of the toughest challenges that you’re finding in handling data or in digital transformation?

Dr. Henna Karna:
Yeah, I was thinking about that. And I appreciate the question because I think there’s lots to learn from other organizations that are going through similar dilemmas and similar opportunity to really create their data assets. And I hear a lot around culture, and mindset and, frankly, data literacy, literacy of data. Like what does it mean to be fundamentally mature with our data? And I would agree for our organization, and similar partners of ours, culture and literacy are very point-in-time critical for us to get solved.

Dr. Henna Karna:
But what goes beyond that perhaps is… And I would bring it back to the kind of company we are. So, one of the toughest challenges we have is to create the mission to be the driver and not what’s our momentum today. So, as an organization with almost 100… I think we’re almost 100 some 50 years old. So, as AXA, we have a natural inertia that continues. We have a kind of a understood way of planning a project. We have an understood way of looking at career paths, understood way of looking at our insurance value chain. And then, to sit back and say, actually there’s a better and different way. It’s not just culture, it’s not just literacy, it’s almost the inertia is the hardest thing to change. And to create a different momentum of equal … This is Newton’s first law. To create a different momentum of equal power that will allow us to almost redirect our energy into something better, it’s a really hard thing to do. So in short, it goes back to human nature. Changing our habits to do better things. It’s a really hard ask.

Melissa Campbell:
Yeah, which I’d say I agree with you, the change management piece of any of these transformational initiatives is probably the biggest challenge. So, that coincides with a lot of stuff we’re seeing in my work as well. So, I love your title, Chief Data and Analytics Officer. So, when you think about data and analytics and serving your company, how do you see that evolving overall?

Dr. Henna Karna:
Yeah. So, I would say that the evolution of this has progressed quite dramatically the last decade or so, maybe the last five years even. What I would like to maybe point out here is that I don’t know if it’s just the data analytics space, but loyalty has become very difficult to find in organizations. A lot of colleagues would like to do … There’s no career right now around being in a role for 10, 12, 15, or company for 10, 12, 15 years. It used to be you joined IBM, or GE, or something, and you’re there forever, and you go up the ranks. And I think that is different.

Dr. Henna Karna:
One of the things that I see as a big shifting factor is the type of leader that we’re trying to create isn’t the same kind. So we’re not trying to create a leader that’s very linear, that’s going up the career path that actually kind of knows their milestones, and so on. The leadership that we’re creating now is a balance between depth and breadth. It’s a type of an individual that understands not only maybe data, but business, but has an acumen on cloud, understands human… Sort of AI and emotional intelligence. That is one of the biggest challenges when we think about the movement of the data analytics job and the people that are in that remit. It’s not going to be someone who just is a data scientist. It’s not going to be someone who just understands statistics anymore or has a big sense of the business acumen.

Dr. Henna Karna:
And from my lens, I run a [P&L 00:10:52]. I run strategy. I’ve built an AI company. And from a peer group that I interact with more frequently, it’s such a variety of individuals. We have a psychologist. I met now a… What do you call it? A scientist on robotics. It’s just the variety is quite impressive. And so, I think that’s going to be pretty neat is the kind of people that enter the space, and the thing that they bring to the table really will be a DNI discussion at a level that’s truly remarkable. It’s going to be quite fascinating.

Melissa Campbell:
That is fascinating. And as you kind of talked about that, I think of even Tamr when we’re selling to organizations like you guys, the triangle of technology, people and process all together, and how it works all together, what do you think is the most challenging part of making all of that work together, technology, people process, and how do you make it work together in your organization?

Dr. Henna Karna:
Yeah, it’s a great question because we talk about that a lot in our organization, I’m sure similar to other organizations. There’s a balance between empowerment and accountability. It always comes down to human nature to me. So we need to know what we do matters. It matters to the organization, someone’s paying attention to it, it matters to the individual, and that it’s going to take us somewhere. I think those are fundamental things. And even as a process, technology, or data sort of triangle, or tripod that you shared, each of those things kind of come up into that conversation. And one of the things that we’ve really tried to do is empower the individuals to understand what are the things that they’re accountable for in a very distinct way, almost in a delineation way to reduce some of the grades because the grades create more conflict. And in some case it’s a healthy conflict, but they create conflict and oftentimes in situations where they create ambiguity.

Dr. Henna Karna:
And ambiguity, although it sounds kind of interesting and exciting, it slows things down. And so we do try to spend a lot of energy in collaboration to actually clear ambiguity, create clear accountability. And at the same time we have an inverted pyramid. So as an organization, we look for grander ideas outside of our direct line of conversation. So I spent quite a bit of time with folks that are not in the data technology side to understand their process. And we ask the data people to spend time with folks that are not in that other part of the triangle, and vice versa, so the folks that are on the process side, really do need to learn the taxonomy of the data and technology groups.

Dr. Henna Karna:
And to really bring that bridge together so that when we can get together, if we have clear accountability, we’ll actually start to find more momentum that’s in sync. And typically these three have three different swim lanes. And the swim lanes are not met together minus when we force them to meet together. And so we’re encouraging them not to be… They have to be swim lanes, but they have to actually have an overlaying… Almost a bullseye that overlays all three of them together. Does that help clarify something like that?

Melissa Campbell:
Yeah. No, it’s great. I think it’s a big puzzle for us in working with other large organizations about how we work among that triangle and so I thought your answer was very insightful. So moving to the technology piece of it, how do you personally learn about new technologies and what gets you in the mode of seeking out a new technology or investigating one?

Dr. Henna Karna:
Yeah. So there’s so much out there now, it’s actually harder. I mean, I remember my first computer was probably six times the size of my laptop in front of me. And the motherboard, you could open it up and you could see the chips and I could buy a RAM and put it in. I remember doing that. That probably ages me a bit, but the reality is the technology world is so different now. And even the definition of technology is different. And I would say that the way that I realized to kind of find what’s not a fad, or what’s not a hype or what’s going to be real and what’s going to stick, or what are things that are habit-changing. And I just simply said, I suppose, I think what my brain and what even my team I think gravitates towards are things that are going to change our habit into something more holistic.

Dr. Henna Karna:
So for example, we have a way of… I don’t know, counting our steps. But today typically Fitbits will count the steps, which most companies and most people tend to know about at least, if not use. But what we’ve tried to do is say, “Okay. Well, that’s the power of one, one at a time.” And if we think about the holistic organization, especially during the pandemic, if we can help each other… And this is just sort of a gamified approach to it. How do we gamify this idea of just getting up and moving around while we’re siloed in our own little box in our homes, and make that a power of a conversation to be had. And how do we make sure that that’s a health mechanism for us to even dialogue about.

Dr. Henna Karna:
So when we get on a phone call, we can say, “Hey, we’ve actually… Champion. This team’s ahead by this percentage” of whatever it might be. So we do use the power of many and what technologies that really, I think, gravitate towards me or those that are going to make us a bit better. And it’s a habit changer. It’s not a lot of fun-to-have, it’s not nice gadget. To me, those kind of come and go. The ones that stick are the ones that really change the way we think about something fundamental.

Melissa Campbell:
No, I appreciate that. And you’ve kind of just been answering my next question a little bit, but let’s dig in a little bit more. So we’ve all experienced dramatic changes and challenges during COVID-19 pandemic, obviously. You just talked a little bit about some things, but how else did the pandemic impact your company and were there ways you were using data to address those challenges?

Dr. Henna Karna:
Yeah, it has been far more complex than we could have ever realized as an organization, as an industry. So for us, this pandemic has created clarity on business continuity. Understanding companies and how they are somewhat unprepared for something like… I mean, we all know we were unprepared for something like this. This was not something that we could have understood or imagined. But even still, I guess the idea of how quickly can we respond, that has been stretched to the nth degree. And it’s a rubber band, the elasticity could easily break. We’ve been stretched so much in understanding the types of industries that are affected. For us, it’s been dramatic in that sense of… Dramatic is probably too small a word here. But the kinds of industry that have been touched, don’t just go from the basic ones that we think about, which is hotel and airline and so on. But there’s a variety of organization and industries that have really been affected secondary, if not preliminary.

Dr. Henna Karna:
And then there’s a people angle to it. So certainly our organization, we’re global, we sit across 52 different countries. And my team directly is almost eight different countries, 17 or 16 different offices. So we had news of… And at one point I had I think four of my six directs out for one reason or the other. So it came very close to home. And I think for us to really start to move this a little bit more towards a healthier stage is a lot of learning.

Dr. Henna Karna:
And there’s this idea of build back better, that I’m seeing a lot of our colleagues start going through. And I’ve created a monthly review with our own organization to think about how do we build back better, and does that mean changes in both our understanding of the office setting, understanding of commute time, and some of our colleagues go through two hour commutes one way in San Francisco or in New York or in India and Poland. What do we do differently? And as an organization, how do we make sure that we understand recovery more precisely so that our company that we partnered with can do better. I think that has been a… And likely will be a business changer for us.

Melissa Campbell:
Yeah. I might borrow that from you. Build back better. I love that. That’s actually fantastic. I love it. So a few years from now, what would be some of the biggest changes you think we’ll see in regards to data management in an organization?

Dr. Henna Karna:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I thought that a few years ago, the idea of compliance would be a driver, not a defensive play only. And I’m waiting for that to happen more and more. So I think over the next couple years, that be a big piece of the puzzle, where it’s actually the core on data management, it’s not a reaction to regulatory requirements, it’s actually embedded in. Regulatory requirements are a part of the norm, and I say that because we have an opportunity as human beings to do more with data than we’ve ever had to before in a financial responsible way. So before, the capabilities were far too expensive, a bit misunderstood, a lot more complex than we could, and today that’s not the case as much. So we’re getting better and faster with our data and our ability to use it and the cost associated with it.

Dr. Henna Karna:
So our ability to be more responsive to regulatory needs would be much greater. That’s one great thing. The other thing of course is AI. And I know everyone talks about it, but I see AI very much as a velocity play, right? So our mind is a directional giving. We always have hypothesis whether we realize it or not. Intuition and a sort of intuition-based thinking and our AI ability to do both de-bias, but also enrich our thought process will be there much more readily. And an example could be simply, we do AI, but we do five different versions of it. We created five different competing AI algorithms that allow us to reduce bias and risk in a way that our human nature couldn’t do it. We couldn’t hire enough people to ever do it that way. And we force an ownership of the person still. So the individual is still responsible and aware of what’s going on and can understand the creative lens of it. So that kind of mind plus machine combination is going to be more and more common, I would say on the data management side.

Melissa Campbell:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, Dr. Karna, this has been so insightful. I’m just wowed by you. I’d love to spend more time with you. And I want to thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions. And people will be able to see this interview, and then also there’s going to be others like it on the CDOMagazine.tech site that you can see there. But I just want to thank you again. It’s been great. I hope at some point we meet in-person when things get back to the somewhat of normal, I guess. And maybe they’ll all be built back better, and we can hopefully meet at some point. But thank you so much for taking the time and I hope you have a great rest of your day.

Dr. Henna Karna:
Thank you so much for having me. And I’m really glad that you’re all putting this together.