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How a health technology CEO is reinventing insurance by fostering an innovation-focused company culture
By Raman Padmanabhan, President and CEO, Thryve Digital Health
In the late 90s, when I started my master’s degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I remember walking into an office where a woman gave me a card and said, “Here is your health insurance from Mutual of Omaha.” And I asked, “What is health insurance?”
I was a young graduate student straight out of India, and the person who gave me the card had to explain to me that if I had a health issue, I just needed to take this with me to the hospital or the clinic and then the insurance company would take care of the cost or part of the cost. For more detailed information on my coverage, I would need to call a 1-800 number – back then, there was no way for me to get details about my plan without talking to a human being.
Twenty years later, I’m still asking that same question – what is health insurance? – but now in a more profound way, as CEO of Thryve Digital Health, a technology company working to expand the possibilities of insurance services. It’s a broad question, but then again, we have a big mission: to make the $3 trillion health care economy more efficient and ultimately to improve the quality of life for every health care consumer.
Designing for innovation
Fortunately, I’ve learned a few things about the relationship between innovation and corporate culture over the past two decades, which I think is making our progress toward that goal somewhat easier.
Before I joined HMHS (the parent of Thryve and a unit of Highmark, a Pittsburgh company that specializes in supporting Blue Cross Blue Shield plans), I spent close to 15 years at Xerox, a company with a remarkable track record of innovation. Innovation was injected into our DNA at Xerox: when I was Chief Technology Officer there, we thought about innovation every day – we patented about 50 inventions a year – and about how to use those new ideas to drive differentiation.
When HMHS selected me to launch a captive offshore center for them in India in 2016, I thought about the advantage we gained with an innovation-focused culture at Xerox. I decided I wanted to combine the best of what I’d seen there (and in the U.S. work culture in general) and what I was seeing in India.
To incorporate Xerox’s emphasis on innovation, Thryve has developed our 3Is program, a framework we call Ideation Incremental Innovation. Through 3Is, we challenge people to look at their jobs and keep asking, is there a way I can do this better? For example, we had a worker who was asked to do a repetitive task that involved cutting and pasting data on an Excel spreadsheet. Now this engineer asked, why am I doing this manually when I could write an Excel macro that could take over this whole task? The person spent three weeks creating that macro, testing it, and using it, and by the end of the third week, that daily chore took a few seconds instead of several hours.
Two years later, the 3Is program has yielded more than 350 ideas submitted and more than 150 implemented, resulting in over $1 million in cost savings and cost avoidance. Some ideas have saved as little as 40 hours of a person’s time, while others have saved the company as much as half a million dollars. We reward people for driving these kinds of innovations in several ways. One of the most important is that everyone who walks into our offices sees a wall where we showcase photos of our ideators with descriptions of what they have done and the cost savings their concepts have generated.
I also wanted our culture to offer scope to one of the strengths I see in India: the hunger for learning and self-improvement that many young Indian professionals have today. We didn’t have the luxury of offering training stateside because of the cost, but here in India, we can deliver a course for a fraction of the cost, which helps create a culture of continuous learning and growing.
This cost differential made it possible for us to give our employees a true long-term career path managed through our Learning and Development organization, called “BrandU.” Monday through Friday people work – they do their day-to-day tasks – and Saturday becomes an optional learning and development day. People understand that the company is giving them all the tools in the toolbox. They tell themselves, if I don’t step up and invest in myself, I can’t really blame the organization for not investing in me.
Most of our people are engineers in their late 20s who like to solve problems, want to develop their skill sets, and are eager to grow. I believe the program has helped us attract and retain this particularly motivated workforce.
Strengthening the team
I also wanted people to feel a strong sense of camaraderie, which is why we didn’t follow the trend of encouraging people to work from home. Most companies in the U.S. have pursued that approach to cut down on real estate costs, and I think we paid a high price for it. I noticed that pushing people to work from home made the company feel fragmented – I know you as a co-worker but I don’t know you as a person. Getting to know co-workers personally makes it easier for me to resolve political challenges and allows me to understand better where people come from, rather than straining to decipher what they’re trying to tell me in an email. Having seen how the work culture was changing stateside, when I moved back to India, I wanted to make sure that we encouraged the growth of a very team-driven, people-centric culture.
That’s also why we’ve invested in the latest video conferencing equipment and try to make sure as many meetings as possible are at least virtually face-to-face, and why we invest very heavily in travel. Every year, we usually get 70 to 75 people visiting us from the U.S., and we send people over there as well. We do that because I think it’s very important to create that one-team culture. Once you have that one-team culture, you forget about geography. My being 10,000 miles away is just abstract distance.
It’s the same logic behind giving employees access to our leadership team. Just the other day, for example, I had coffee with 20 to 25 employees – when we have these coffees, it’s usually an open invitation by way of a sign-up sheet. You sign up, and then have a good hour-long conversation with the CEO. That’s unheard of in India, where sometimes you don’t even get to talk to folks above your manager.
Two years since the journey commenced to setup Thryve, we have grown into a 1,000+ employee organization operating in two locations, Chennai and Hyderabad. While we’re still hiring, I’m taking no one for granted. In every conversation with my employees, I tell them that our customers don’t come to us just because we have a sexy office in a high-tech city. They come to us for service, they come to us for quality, they come to us for cost, and that is all enabled by our people. People are my only asset.
Encouraging incremental innovation ideas can boost morale and help the company.
Pushing workers to be physically present can help build a sense of closeness and camaraderie...
...But if you have a distributed team, you can overcome much of the physical distance by investing in video conferences and travel.