Building a Bright Future

Why Sherri Zink’s work in IT and data analytics is crucial to the way BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee fulfills its mission

When Sherri Zink arrived at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee seven years ago, she was tasked with one mountainous job: to build a data and analytics center of excellence.

Her effort didn’t stop there, however. Along with accomplishing that task, Zink has also helped shape the company’s culture of innovation and data-driven decision making by introducing transformative analytic solutions and predictive science into the process.

“Data is embedded in what we do every day,” says Zink, senior vice president and chief data officer for the organization. “We see it as a valuable strategic asset because it gives us insight into ways we can better support our members, customers, and communities. Data also helps us deliver on our corporate mission.”

Zink and her information delivery team work closely with IT and other business units across the organization to develop tools and technology that translate data into actionable insights and solutions.

Zink’s initial career path was in information systems technology. She earned her degree in the field and took her first job at a healthcare company in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that is now part of Cigna. In that role, she used information to assess benefit design trends and plan performance metrics for employer groups. “I realized early on that I loved analyzing the data, not just programming it,” she says.

Sherri Zink, SVP and Chief Data Officer of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

Zink also enjoyed translating her analyses into narratives that clients could understand and leverage to make changes that improved their business performance.

“At the end of the day, you can have all the data in the world,” Zink says. “But if your business partners and customers don’t know how to leverage it, it’s not worth a lot to them.”

Zink continued her path in the healthcare industry, spending twenty-one years of her career at Cigna in various analytic roles. In 2005, she joined the UnitedHealthcare national accounts division as director, reporting strategies. In 2007, she became vice president, reporting & analytics for Optum, where she was responsible for enterprise-wide clinical reporting solutions and data infrastructure design.

Upon joining BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee in August 2010 as vice president, medical informatics, Zink led an analytics team of fifty-four data scientists and data analysts focused on reporting solutions and research projects. The separate IT department, meanwhile, included a data management team and application development team.

“My job was to assess existing data infrastructure and analytic capabilities across informatics and IT, identify any gaps, and bring in new technologies and skill sets to successfully deliver on this new organization-wide strategy,” Zink says.

She spent her first ninety days at the company learning the lay of the land, analyzing the organization’s data, the ease of access to it, and the technology available to harness it. Above all, Zink realized that a strong data architecture and infrastructure is the key to a successful analytics center of excellence.

“We wanted to be able to run predictive models easily across large amounts of data,” she says.

Another critical aspect of the project was the communication strategy throughout the process. “I found myself taking on somewhat of a salesman-type role, making sure everyone was comfortable and on board with the decisions,” Zink says. “I was careful to translate all the technical jargon into something that was meaningful to my business partners to get their buy-in.”

In 2012, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee implemented its initial data analytics framework with a new database structure and business intelligence platform. Zink and her team, in partnership with IT, also began to launch new analytic applications to drive business value immediately.

“We made sure to create some quick wins throughout the process,” Zink says of those applications. “It takes a while to create a database, so we improvised by creating business intelligence applications within ninety days of releasing new data subject areas onto the data platform. This allowed our business partners to leverage the analytic applications with their customers and embed them into their existing operational processes.”

Zink was fortunate to have a senior leadership team who understood the value of data and the heavy investment needed to make it all work.

She secured their buy-in by prioritizing business needs, showcasing the return on investment for each project, and tying the development to corporate strategic goals. “This is an ongoing process as we continue to build out and enhance the platform today,” Zink says.

“People, process, and technology are all  important aspects of our strategy and this consideration is built into the rollout of each new project.”

It was also important for Zink and her IT counterparts to establish clarity on the role each of them would play in the development aspects of the project.   

“There were some gray areas  we had to work through at first, but we’ve hit our stride, and things are moving along really well now. We couldn’t be successful without our IT partners,” Zink says.

One final success factor was driving the adoption of the platform. This required training for the users as well as integration of the analytics into day-to-day operations. “People, process, and technology are all  important aspects of our strategy and this consideration is built into the rollout of each new project,” Zink says.

Now that data is in such high demand at BlueCross BlueShield Tennessee, Zink and her team are experiencing a new challenge: keeping up with expectations. They are streamlining their processes to create efficiencies to help avoid access and development delays.

“We’re asking, ‘How do we move more of what we do into a self-service environment so we’re not creating bottlenecks in delivering data and analytics?’” says Zink. “We want to make it easier for our business partners, data scientists, and data analysts to quickly get the information they need.”

Zink divides the progression that she and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee have made over the past seven years into three layers. First was data integration, bringing the data together cohesively. The second was data transformation, taking data and running predictive models, risk stratification, and segmentation on it. Finally, through data visualization, she and her team figured out how to showcase the information so business units and customers can easily identify opportunities.

“We have business units that have been leveraging this information platform for 3–4 years now,” Zink says. “Now we’re looking at how to capitalize on the solutions associated with that data.”

Having already used Zink’s new database infrastructure to analyze historic data and predict future events, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is applying prescriptive analytics, creating solutions around what the data shows, and alerting business partners, customers, and providers about trends they should be aware of.

Zink is now well beyond the task that BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee gave her seven years ago. Her team has grown to include 215 data and analytic professionals, and the analytics platform now houses more than one thousand data sources and has evolved to include machine learning, text analytics, and a “next best action” solutions workbench. She and her data are leading the organization into the future.

Information Builders helps healthcare organizations succeed in maximizing their efforts in value-based care. Our Omni-HealthData application allows provider and payer organizations to create a patient/member-centric view across the continuum of care. Optimized costs, timely care delivery, and improvements in risk management, network performance, care coordination, and workforce and patient/member satisfaction lead to healthier outcomes and greater market share. Founded in 1975, Information Builders is headquartered in New York City, with offices around the world, and remains one of the largest independent, privately held companies in the industry. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter at @infobldrs.