Avi Golan: How Air NZ unleashes digital transformation

Avi Golan: How Air NZ unleashes digital transformation

At the recent CIO100 breakfast in Auckland, Air New Zealand’s first chief digital officer talks about customer experience, finding 10X talent and predicting the future.

“How can we be the best digital airline globally?

Avi Golan, Air New Zealand

When Avi Golan got a call from an executive recruiter about joining Air New Zealand as chief digital officer, his initial reaction was, 'why me?'

“I have no experience in airlines,” says Golan, who was then a vice president at Intuit, in Mountain View, California.

He suggested the caller talk to digital leaders in airlines.

“He said Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon is not looking for someone with airline experience, he wants a world leading chief digital officer from Silicon Valley,” says Golan.

“That intrigued me,” says Golan, who at that time had been living in Silicon Valley for 17 years, working in a range of startups and technology companies, including Google, Siemens and Nook.

He told his wife about “the strange call” and she said, “Let’s do it, let us go and explore New Zealand.”

Golan smiles and says what happened next shows,“who is the boss.”

He did due diligence on Air New Zealand and liked what he learned. That is, a company based in the Pacific with an incredible brand. Non-Kiwis also talk highly about the airline and its capability, he states.

Golan says the airline is challenging the status quo, embracing technology and is always striving to innovate.

He also liked the challenge put before him, which was, “How can we be the best digital airline globally?”

Golan joined Air New Zealand in January, 2016. Over a year on, he talks about how he and his team, working with business units and partners, are implementing the 2020 digital vision for the airline.

What is the seamless experience that we need to do in order to create the liberating experience for the customer?

The 2020 digital vision

Many people in New Zealand associate digital transformation solely with technology, says Golan, who spoke at the CIO100 forum in Auckland last week.

This was not the case in his previous workplaces, all technology companies.

“The focus was on the actual product and the experiences we were creating,” he says.

“In non-digital organisations, digital is singled out as an entire separate thing.

“It’s my view that non-technology companies, whatever the industry, need to realise that technology is simply another key function of the business and that the focus should always be on keeping the customer experience evolving – physically and digitally with the two dimensions of the experience eventually merging into one.”

But as a newcomer to the CDO role and in a non-digital company, he says it was important for him to understand what the Air New Zealand experience was about and what it was trying to achieve before embarking on any kind of transformation.

'Identify your true customers'

Air New Zealand has a clearly defined purpose that will last for years to come, he says.

“Our purpose is to supercharge New Zealand’s success socially, economically and environmentally,” he explains.

“Having a purpose bigger than ourselves is what makes a great company, connecting people with our business and giving our people something to strive for.”

It gives you a bigger purpose than just solving the business problem, he states.

This resonates with Golan, who came from another small country, Israel, where “we always identify ourselves with the country.”

Air New Zealand, he says, has identified its core brand as “liberating travellers from the ordinary”, or what he calls “freeing customers from the tyranny of travel”.

This provides his team with the focus needed to design and deliver experiences that matter to people, he says.

“What we need to do is to continually surprise and delight our customers, finding new ways to make their travel easier, more magical,” he says.

He cites, for instance, there are about 15 stages of experience from the time a person dreams about the vacation, to booking it, planning for the trip and going to the airport.

“We started to think, what is the seamless experience that we need to do in order to create the liberating experience for the customer?

“We have to think of the customer at every point of the way. When we talk about the design, it is all about the the customer experience,” he states.

Design is a customer experience from a digital perspective and from a technology perspective.

"So if we build something, if we create something, it needs to be designed by the user, not by us.

“Our vision is to reimagine travel through inspiring digital experiences,” he says.

Golan says as CDO, his role is not about trying to come in and create technologies.

“My role is to help the company create competitive advantages and better experiences for customers, and create more commercial opportunities.”

He also talks about taking insights from non-related industries on enhancing customer experience.

He cites an example from GE, which manufactures CT scans. Radiologists said the machines produced great images.

But GE noted that for the patients who are children, and their families, a scan be stressful.

The child goes into the room, sees the machine and is unable to be still in the scanner. They are given anaesthesia in order to sleep, and this can be frustrating and painful for the parent, says Golan.

So GE designed CT scan machines with designs that would appeal to children, as if they are going into a ship or a land filled with cartoon characters. These machines are now being used in hospitals in the United States.

Children who use this CT scan will feel like they are going on an island adventure (Photo from GE Healthcare)
Children who use this CT scan will feel like they are going on an island adventure (Photo from GE Healthcare)

The new machines were designed to delight, says Golan.

“GE wanted the child to tell their friends that although they are sick, they are going to have an amazing experience, an adventure.”

It also changed how GE works. GE trained the radiologists to tell the children they are going into this amazing machine that takes them to a different world.

The insight from this is to identify your true customers, and to design things that are better and more inspiring for your users, says Golan.

Golan says Air New Zealand is looking at virtual reality to help passengers imagine where they are going to.

“If you are going to Fiji, you can experience that while you are in the airplane,” he says.

Or, passengers can imagine flying through the clouds like a bird instead of feeling they are in a plane.

He continues, “What if we can actually take you back to the destination? There are lots of ideas we are thinking about customer experience in a way that is so liberating.”

The key to all of that is getting the culture right," he says. “If we do not change the culture, we will not be able to make that transformation.”

Agile delivery is new for a lot of the company's teams, so they worked at building this capability and enabling the teams to work in news ways, he says. These include running boot camps, bringing Agile coaches on board and improving working spaces.

“We are moving to ensure that products continually evolve and move with the times, with a clear roadmap of where we see that product going and additional features and improvements in the pipeline.”

An example is the Air NZ Airband, a wristband embedded with a Near Field Communication chip given to children travelling unaccompanied at check-in. Air New Zealand staff scan the wristband at key stages of the journey, triggering text notifications to the child’s nominated contacts.

He says they asked people to use it and get feedback. "We are working on the next generation [of the Airband] and are always iterating."

The key is getting the culture right...If we do not change the culture, we will not be able to make that transformation.

Avi Golan, Air New Zealand

Culture in a coffee cup

Golan says often it is small things that make the biggest differences, like their coffee app.

Read more: Westpac CIO Dawie Olivier on 'The killer app for today’s ICT teams'

When a customer enters the Air New Zealand lounges, the app asks the passenger if they would like coffee. Their order is automatically sent to baristas and the app messages the passenger when the coffee’s ready.

He reveals: “Between December and March alone, our customers sipped nearly 2,500 cups per day!”

This app is about innovation, it is about the culture of the organisation, he says.

“We keep on asking, what is the next app? What is the feature that will wow you, that will create this amazing experience for you?”

He believes a company can only achieve great design of their products and services, if it is configured to think differently.

"When we talk about creating innovation spaces, we actually mean creating ‘innovators’," he says. "These are people who will help achieve these milestones and who need to think outside of the box."

Air New Zealand recently had its first summer digital internship programme. The aim was to find future digital leaders and develop talent in New Zealand along with growing the technology capabilities of the airline as part of Air New Zealand’s journey to become a world leading digital airline.

Recently, the company made a foray into the field of artificial intelligence with Bravo Oscar Tango or Oscar. Oscar was created in a few weeks, he says.

"We positioned Oscar as a cadet in training and kept asking him questions,” he says. "The teams keep iterating and are creating better and better capabilities for Oscar."

The next generation robots will relate to people in a deep and positive way, he adds.

Bot in training: Customers with queries about Airpoints, baggage or Air New Zealand lounges are encouraged to put Oscar to the test.
Bot in training: Customers with queries about Airpoints, baggage or Air New Zealand lounges are encouraged to put Oscar to the test.

Air New Zealand is also utilising 3D printing. An example is when a seat part is broken, it can be replaced using 3D printing technology without the need to order the part.

He shares pointers on nurturing talent, taken from his experience at Silicon Valley.

“One of the things I took from Google is that it was not about the fact that they hire great people that can do great things,” he says. “It is about what they allow them to do and how they allow them to do their work.”

He says when he joined Google, he was told to “just go and pick up your whatever you want.”

“I did whatever I wanted. Seriously, I did a good job actually because I did what I wanted to do.

“The focus was about talent,” he says. “We spent 20 per cent of our time interviewing other talent.”

The goal is to find the ‘10x’ employees, he says. “These are employees who perform 10 times better than other employees.”

Air New Zealand puts these 10X people on a project and create the environment for them to thrive.

“We just give them permission to play,” he says. “They don’t have limitations, baggages or anything else.

“Instead of giving them a list of priorities, we give them some space,” he says.

Towards the end of his CIO100 presentation, Golan notes there is no endgame in digital transformation.

“The world is changing so much around us that we need to be flexible and adapt with it,” he says. “That is why we’re setting ourselves up with an operating model we believe is flexible and scalable and with a culture that can thrive in change."

He leaves the audience with this message:

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Related: Object lessons on change management and fostering innovation from Avi Golan and other CIO100 leaders

Air New Zealand chief digital officer Avi Golan at the CIO100 event in Auckland.
Air New Zealand chief digital officer Avi Golan at the CIO100 event in Auckland.

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