New York Life’s Cara Gagliano Talks Data Strategy

If digital technology has a common denominator, it’s that every system, device and application leads to data. One person who understands this concept very well is Cara Gagliano, senior vice president, enterprise data management, at the financial services giant New York Life Insurance Company, which is one of the Anita Borg Institute’s “Top Companies for Women Technologists.” She leads the company’s data strategy and helps the organization drive digital transformation. Gagliano, who previously worked at Nomura Securities, Lehman Brothers, CIT Group and Deutsche Asset Management, offered her thinking and insights about big data analytics and the digital economy in a recent interview with Baseline.

Baseline: How do you view the emerging digital economy, and how does data impact your business?

Gagliano: The goal, obviously, is to harness the value of all the data that’s available. But this is a tricky proposition because all data is not created equal, and not all data delivers value. It’s easy to get lost in data.

You really have to stay focused on the number one task: What business problem am I trying to solve? From there, you can work backward. You can also figure out which technologies deliver value for your business challenges.

Baseline: Can you expand on the concept that not all data is created equal?

Gagliano: Today, every element of the business can be tied to a piece of data. Essentially, everything is capable of being digitized, although it may not be worth digitizing. At New York Life, for example, we have 170 years of history. There are a lot of amazing insights that are possible from this data.

But it doesn’t happen by just tossing all the data together. We have to create a way to prioritize data based on what we want to focus on. One of the traps many organizations fall into is lacking context for their data. A data strategy is only as good as the business strategy it links with.

Baseline: How can an organization know it’s on the right track? How do business leaders begin to create a sense of order from all the potential chaos?

Gagliano: There are three fundamental elements to any data strategy. First, there’s the underlying technology, including how you obtain the data. This might include legacy databases, social media, reports, audio, emails or the IoT [internet of things]. It’s all about your IT architecture.

Second, you have to identify a strategic focus. A data strategy alone will not yield value. The initiative must be driven by business outcomes. You must have a very clear sense of outcomes.

Third—and it’s just as important as the other two—you must focus on the organization’s culture. There’s a need to change mindsets and behaviors to use data in very different ways to help drive decision making. This is often a big change management issue, and it’s more difficult than the technology part of the puzzle.

Baseline: What does it take for an enterprise to pull off this three-pronged approach you describe?

Gagliano: There must be fundamental alignment between the business side and the IT side. There must be a high level of collaboration, cooperation, sponsorship and interaction. A mature organization sorts out critical issues, such as how to measure and value data, ownership of data, and opportunities to improve the quality of data through the process generally referred to as governance.