Client Story: Aetna 2019-05-07T10:00:29-04:00
Building Emotional Commitment to Aetna's New Strategy
Background Image


Aetna is an American managed health care company, which sells traditional and consumer directed health care insurance plans and related services.

  • US $60 Billion in revenues

  • 45,000 employees

  • Serving 20+ million members

The Challenge

While undergoing major changes, Aetna was in a state of turmoil. It had experienced serious market challenges, including customer loss and a significant drop in stock price, which necessitated personnel changes at all levels. As a result, company morale was low and the future seemed uncertain. It was up to Aetna’s new leadership team to set the tone, ensuring that all employees were revitalized by the opportunities presented by the company’s shift, rather than paralyzed by their fears of more personnel changes. “I want to have 28,000 employees who really understand our business, what we’re trying to accomplish and our long-term strategy,” said Aetna’s President, Ron Williams. The leadership team resolved to energize employees by giving them strategic business literacy and engaging them in the future of the business in an authentic and personal way.


The Approach

Aetna’s President, Ron Williams, partnered with Applied Learning to create four custom Knowledge Map engagement tools, which would then be used throughout the company at all levels. Each map was grounded in facts and data and carefully designed to communicate one of the four key strategic business literacy topics: the case for change at Aetna, the role each employee played in ensuring a healthy financial future, the needs of Aetna’s four major types of clients, and each employee’s role in the company’s new strategy moving forward. After three months of collaborating with the executive team, developing the Knowledge Map prototypes, and focus group testing, the Knowledge Maps were ready to be experienced by all employees.

Additionally, Applied Learning developed complementary digital support tools. They ensured that all employees were able to engage in the learning experience, including the few that may have missed Knowledge Map sessions. The digital support tools were also used to communicate changes in strategy or constituent needs over the next two years.

The Result

The Knowledge Maps were rolled out throughout the entire company, increasing strategic business literacy and employee engagement at every level. By the end of its four year turnaround period, Aetna’s shares had increased from $23 a share to $152 a share and the company was well-positioned to continue succeeding. Aetna’s President Ron Williams concluded, “The level of dialogue and discussion was extremely productive.  Everyone left there with a fuller and richer sense of how they can contribute to the success of the organization.”

An Interview with Aetna’s President

Aetna President Ron Williams is the sponsor of the Knowledge Maps, a new development initiative rolled out across the country. All employees are expected to participate in Knowledge Map sessions by mid-year. At the time of this writing, approximately 25% of employees have participated in a Knowledge Map session. In the following interview, Williams shared his perspective on the importance of this new initiative.

Ron, why did you decide to sponsor this new learning initiative?

Williams: I think it’s extremely important that employees have a context in which to understand our business, customers and products.  It’s also important that they understand the strategy we’re pursuing.  I believe Knowledge Maps are an important and extremely effective way to make certain that everyone who works here has a solid understanding of those issues.

You’ve talked about building strategic business literacy among employees through Knowledge Maps.  Can you say more about what you mean by that?

Williams: By strategic business literacy, I mean really understanding the business environment, how we make money, what we do with the money we make, and what our customers expect of us.  Now, there’s no way for each employee to have a full view of all of those pieces.  For example, you may really understand what someone who calls customer service expects from us, but you might not understand what a plan sponsor wants. So building strategic business literacy is about expanding your knowledge of our business. We want to make certain that you have a full, 360 degree view, hence the notion of being literate about all aspects of our business.

How will Knowledge Maps help build strategic business literacy?

Williams:  Knowledge Maps help build literacy through dialogue.  The Maps process is designed to bring together small groups of people from different functions and organizations.  The groups review each map in depth, discuss what they’re learning and share their perspectives.  When people share what they know, we end up with a richer sense of our customers, our products, our strategies and other components covered in the Knowledge Maps.

So employees build on each other’s knowledge during this process?

Williams:  Each of us knows the business from our particular point of view.  But imagine if you take what you know and add it to what others’ know – you can become that much more knowledgeable about the business.  The Knowledge Maps process helps us get a more complete picture, which helps us make better decisions and better serve our customers.

What’s the outcome you’re looking for from this initiative?

Williams:  I want to have 28,000 employees who really understand our business, what we’re trying to accomplish and our long-term strategy.  Through initiatives such as Knowledge Maps, we give them a better context to exercise their own judgment to help us accomplish our goals.

There may be some concern among managers about the amount of time required for employees to participate in this training.

Williams:  I think it’s fair to say that this is a very significant commitment of time as well as training resources, and while that may concern some, it’s important to recognize that this is an investment in our employees.  For us to achieve high-performance, we must equip them with both general knowledge and specific job knowledge so that they can do a better job overall.  They may also learn about other careers in the organization, which would give them a sense of other ways they might be able to contribute.

At the December Leadership Conference, Aetna’s top 200 leaders went through the fourth Map – Capitalizing on a Universe of Opportunity.  What was that experience like?

Williams:  I was pleased by the outcome.  We put Aetna’s leaders through the Knowledge Map process and while they didn’t go through every map, it was an extremely educational process.  I think people learned things and I think that the level of dialogue and discussion was extremely productive.  Everyone left there with a fuller and richer sense of how they can contribute to the success of the organization.

The expectation is that everyone will go through Knowledge Maps by mid-year.  What happens after that?

Williams: Building strategic business literacy is an ongoing activity.  As new people join the organization, we need to make sure they participate in Knowledge Maps as part of their orientation process.  Periodically, as we look at how our products change, or how the market and competitive environment is changing, we’ll look to refresh our general knowledge through Knowledge Maps.  However, our updated training will not be as a large an undertaking as this year’s initiative.  We would probably do it on this basis every two years or so.  We also are investing in an online Knowledge Maps tool that will facilitate regular updates.

Let’s Talk About How We Can Help You Succeed.

We can discuss your business needs and guide you to a solution that is best for your situation.