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Staying ahead of the disruption curve

Staying ahead of the disruption curve

Top tips from Sonya Crosby, chief innovation officer at SkyCity

There’s nothing like facts to support stepping into new or unknown territory.

Sonya Crosby, SkyCity

“Oh, innovation, don’t you just put apps in?”

Sonya Crosby smiles at comments, such as above, that she gets when people learn she is the chief innovation officer at SkyCity Entertainment Group. 

Crosby took on the new C-level role at SkyCity in January 2016, coming from Fonterra, where she was general manager - digital innovation.

“We have a board that is forward looking and saying, 'Look we know we are a successful business today but how can we be sure for the long term we can sustain shareholder value and growth? We need someone looking at that,'" she says, on the driver for the creation of her role.

“We are a long-term business,” she adds. “So how do we build and create new business growth for the long term? Where will we be in 10 years? Those are the questions I am asking.

“How do we attract and retain our customers, both now and in the future? How can we create connections that meet and exceed customer expectations? How do we ensure our efforts are focused on sustainable commercial returns?

“My role is a strategic driver to our business, using customer-centred design and innovation to grow revenue and shareholder value,” explains Crosby, who reports to the CEO.

“When you think about innovation, it is not just about opportunities for marketing, technology and operations. It involves everyone,” she says.

“My role is to look at holistically where the business can grow and we need to work with the teams to make sure we deliver that.”

The role, she says, involves being catalyst, curator, facilitator, investigator and futurist.

Crosby says she looks at three core filters when considering opportunities for the group:

  • What is desirable for our customers?

  • What is our current capability - what are we good at, what do we need to be good at?

  • What is the commercial opportunity for the business?

“Those three components come together, that is basically how we view opportunities,” she explains. “And then, within that, we look at how do we determine what we spend our time on?

“There are lots and lots of ideas out there. You need to create a strong framework to test ideas in the right way to make sure that they are good for our business. It has to have a real purpose and reason.

“Otherwise, you can chase the shiny objects,” she says. “That, to me, is not what innovation is all about.”

“For me, innovation is far more serious, far more commercially oriented.”

“There is a solid way of going about it to make sure you get the best out of it. And, if the whole organisation is trained and is doing it this way, magic will happen."

Sonya Crosby, chief innovation officer at SkyCity, will deliver the keynote address on ‘Enhancing the customer journey via the rise of machine learning and advanced analytics’ at the inaugural Chief Data & Analytics Officer New Zealand conference on November 28 and 29 at the Hilton in Auckland.

Disruption? Deal with it

Crosby brings to SkyCity a range of experience in different sectors.

Her earlier career includes a focus on data driven and customer oriented businesses, holding executive roles with Datamine and Affinity ID and, earlier again, in senior management roles with a range of organisations in New Zealand and abroad including McCann Global and Saatchi & Saatchi.

She is one of the founders of the Wynyard Innovation Neighbourhood. This is a collective of like-minded, non-competitive companies who have come together - in a geographic location, the Wynyard Innovation Quarter - that have agreed “to collaborate for a better New Zealand”.

SkyCity is a member of the group, which includes Spark, IAG, ASB, Datacom, Fonterra and Air New Zealand.

Cross-industry experiences are valuable, she says, on the discussions she holds with other members of the group which are all off the record or under Chatham House rules.

Crosby also shares her insights on innovation and digital transformation with other organisations. Recently, she spoke with government agencies about their activities at the Wynyard Innovation Group and with the Trans-Tasman Business Circle.

“Around New Zealand, it is hard enough competing globally, so let us help each other a bit more,” she says, on why she finds time for these discussions.

As she puts it, there are only two types of businesses.

“Those who are being disrupted and know about it, and those who are being disrupted and have not yet realised it.

“Everyone has been disrupted, you are not alone.”

What is important, she says, is to recognise that disruption is happening and it is coming fast, and then start thinking about scenarios for your business.

“What is changing around you? If you fast forward and you start to do some future scenarios, what might that be for your business?

“See it through rose-tinted glasses and from a risk black hat point of view, and then ask 'what does that mean, what do I have to do differently?'

In the case of SkyCity, she says, “You need to be thinking about scenario planning, understand who the customer is, understand what will people want in 10 years for entertainment. What will be considered fun, how will people spend their time and what role could SkyCity play in that?

She says her team also looks at adjacent things, those that are close to their current capability, but also at the “uncomfortable brand, new blue-sky space”.

Innovation everywhere

The team work at The CoLab, an open plan office on Wellesley St, behind the SkyCity Grand Hotel.

A lot of SkyCity staff and group functions also use the CoLab for planning sessions.

Crosby leads a small team that includes the head of customer experience, head of design, programme manager (who oversees their activities “to make sure we stay on time and on budget”) and partner manager.

The latter looks at how they can team up with other companies to “accelerate opportunities”. For instance, instead of working on the tourist markets on their own, SkyCity will team up with other partners like Air New Zealand.

“We have a big virtual team around us. This is anything from tertiary institutions, to incubators, scale ups, startups, to established vendors in different areas.”

She works with social anthropologists who have “fantastic skills” on really understanding behaviours and triggers of customers, particularly when they are mapping the customer journey “end to end”.

Customer focused, cross-functional teams at work

“We start with understanding the customer, understanding the pain points and opportunities,” she says.

The innovation team investigates and develops concepts. It then works with cross functional teams to take these through to prototyping and minimum viable product, to test the benefits for the business.

“It is collaborative all the way.”

This is especially important for people involved in service and operations, and basically all hotel staff.

“They are involved right from the beginning and all the way through, and so are the technology teams,” says Crosby.

The cross functional teams include business owners who will be owning the opportunity downstream along with technology solutions, delivery and maintenance.

“In this way the operating framework and change management are considered throughout, and the handover is expected and planned for,” she states.

“We have already seen some benefits for staff in simplifying systems, as we’ve moved through different iterations of prototypes.

“Not all innovation is technology based,” she explains, “however, our full roadmap is shared for transparency so that staff from different areas can contribute their thinking."

The company has developed customer panels at all their properties.

These include customers they see a lot and those “less engaged” with SkyCity. “We want to know everybody.”

“It is like a community panel, but it is for SkyCity,” she says. “They really care about having a voice and being part of trying new things."

A group of volunteers, for instance, were among the first to test keyless entry to the hotel room.

“When you think about hotels, one of the pain points is you arrive at the same time with other customers. You are bottlenecked trying to get in. The next morning, when you check out to get to a business meeting, you are all bottlenecked again trying to leave the hotel.

“Using keyless access allows you to receive a code to your phone and you just walk straight to your door.”

If data is held in a static way within one department, then it is very hard to use

Sonya Crosby, SkyCity

‘Customer experience is everything’

Talking about the buzzword ‘customer experience’, which accompanies any discussion on digital transformation, she points out: “Everything is customer experience.”

“If you think about the fundamentals of the business and how to succeed in business, you need to understand who is your customer today, who is your customer going forward,” she says.

“Good data and asking the right questions,” are critical, she points out. “Because you can have a lot of data and no wisdom.”

There are a couple of technologies the innovation team is particularly interested in.

One is mixed reality and augmented reality for both entertainment, and also for education, health and safety.

The other is artificial intelligence (AI) for optimisation and “delivering a more fluid service”.

These could be analysing data to better utilise their carpark space, understand and improve customer navigation on site, better tailor services for the hotel guests and simplify restaurant experiences.

She says AI and technologies around data are not new concepts.

“They just happen to be trendy.”

“Even back in the day, you were still using data to understand and to optimise,” she says, referring to her previous roles across industries.

“So in today's business, we are using data to understand and help customers navigate and have the right offerings at the right place, and at the right time.”

The difference is instead of having static data that sits in a big pile and having someone to figure it out, today’s businesses are using “dynamic data”.

“It is intelligent and moving all the time, it flows through the right person and it drives the right action to happen.”

She shares her experiences from across industries on how organisations can further harness data to grow the business and improve customer experience.

“Data is 'gold' for business,” she states. “However, it needs wisdom and application to be really powerful.”

“You need to understand it is not just numbers, but real people, with real behaviours, choosing to spend real money in different ways.”

Crosby says there needs to be a combination of the organisation’s own data and external data.

“This is important as it helps you to know where you stand against industry benchmarks.

"You need to understand the customer experience end to end not just when they are with you, but when they are not with you as well.

"You need to be thinking about external data source. Because if you are only looking at your own data, you are only looking at what is in front of you. You could be missing the whole story.

“So you use a combination of big data and things like social anthropology to really understand ‘the why’.”

She says having this data-driven approach also helps identify where the company can grow, what trends are coming through and where to invest for best return.

“Data ‘on the go’ helps you get your offerings ‘right now’,” she says. Dynamic data supports on the spot tailoring of services. These include simply being able to welcome a guest by name, through to language used, and even providing loyalty points at the car park.

From a productivity point of view, dynamic data helps with labour management. This way, “we can spend more time on serving customers than on finding their information or constantly asking for their details.”

“Data also gives decision-makers confidence and at board level too,” she says. “There’s nothing like facts to support stepping into new or unknown territory.”

Look at every area of your business as if you were setting it up from scratch.

Sonya Crosby, SkyCity

She then talks about the human component involved in tackling the rise of digital technologies.

“You have to get digitally literate across the business. It is not owned by one team, but rather by every single person in the business."

For instance, it is not enough for technology teams to be able to work in agile ways. “The whole of business needs to adopt this practice.”

“You have to empower and educate your staff to think and do within the innovation process and discipline,” she says.

Form work groups tackle functional areas and together identify where costs can be reduced and new value created, she adds.

Look at every area of your business as if you were setting it up from scratch. How might you use digital technologies to simplify and enable better business?”

Form alliances and knowledge sharing with completely different industries, she adds.

Adaptability Quotient (AQ) is critical, she says. This is the ability to flex, to continuously learn.

Ask yourself, “are you really challenging yourself to be a continuous learner?”

“Is your whole business digitally literate? Are you all thinking innovatively?"

Build that curiosity within your team, she states. “Empower them, give them permission to ask questions.”

“Set them up to do problem solving,” she further advises. “A great way to get people innovating is just to say, ‘what is the problem that you see?’

“Right, figure out how to solve it. That’s it, you are already innovating!”

Next: Career drilldown | Sonya Crosby shares top tips for thriving in the data-driven economy

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