Singapore Airlines employees urged to innovate, fail without fear

Through its digital innovation lab, airline carrier hopes to encourage the development--and even failure--of new ideas to improve service levels, without any concerns of how it will impact employees' career postures.

Its systems cannot afford to fail in the sky, but Singapore Airlines wants its employees on the ground to know they do not always need to succeed when it comes to digital innovation.

Through its digital innovation lab, the airline carrier aims to provide a platform on which anyone can try out new ideas, and fail, without any fear their role in the company could be negatively impacted, according to George Wang, senior vice president of IT at Singapore Airlines (SIA).

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Wang said in an interview with ZDNet: "There needs to be a place where you can fail and there's no implication to your career. [The innovation lab] is a safety net. Anyone in the company can take a day in a week to work with the team [at the lab] and innovate together and talk through the idea."

Whilst not officially launched, SIA's digital innovation lab has been operational since January this year, developing and experimenting with new ideas that aim to resolve business challenges the company faces.

It was set up as part of the airline's digital innovation blueprint and digital transformation efforts, through which it hoped to beef up its digital capabilities and cultivate "an open innovation culture" within the organisation.

The lab offers platform on which SIA staff can work with external partners such as startups, incubators, and accelerators to explore potential applications to reduce maintenance costs and aircraft delays as well as improve the airline's service standards.

The carrier also inked several partnerships to help develop its digital capabilities, including with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, and National University of Singapore (NUS).

Through such initiatives, the Singapore airline hopes to create an environment and framework from which to curate and develop ideas, said SIA's vice president of digital innovation Jerome Thil, who joined the airline in July 2018. He heads the team of eight at the digital lab.

Thil pointed to SIA's App Challenge, for instance, which looked to engage the startup community and crowdsource potential applications to address specific business challenges identified by SIA.

Participants work with the airline to better understand requirements unique to the aviation industry as well as with external industry partners to develop product prototypes. Now in its fourth iteration, the programme this year drew 406 submissions from 1,527 participants across 73 countries.

Thil added that the airline also offered a three-month accelerator programme alongside NUS Enterprise, with the aim to work with startups and jointly build proof-of-concepts that, if proven feasible, could be deployed commercially.

Wang underscored the importance of focusing not only on technology innovation but also "a commitment excellence and service leadership" to steer SIA's digital transformation in the right direction. "You can have the technology, but if you don't have the finance to deliver the service, then there's not point. We don't just do digital for digital's sake. We do it with a focus on improving customer service," he said.

Cabin crew, for instance, should be enabled to provide more personalised services, he said. This would require backend systems to be digitised and customer-facing systems and operations also would need to be reengineered.

In addition, data should be better tapped to support decision-making processes, he added, noting that the airline supported four key operational processes--cabin crew, pilots, ground services, and engineering--each requiring data to improve service delivery and efficiency.

En route to digitally transforming the business

Wang noted that SIA's digital transformation strategy centred on four key elements, namely, technical capabilities and infrastructure, digital culture, resource and capabilities, and innovation.

In 2013, the company migrated from mainframes to an open system framework, and it reengineered its backend architecture to operate on microservices. To facilitate this, it provided APIs (application programming interfaces) to its technology partners so they could more easily integrate their applications and services with the airline's.

The carrier recently launched its KrisConnect Programme, which it said would make data and functionalities on SIA's digital platforms more readily accessible to partners. The new offering taps the use of API technology such as IATA's New Distribution Capability initiative, and provides a range of APIs including flight reservation management, checking of flight status data, and information related to its frequent flyer membership programme, KrisFlyer.

Industry players currently tapping KrisConnect included Amadeus, Sabre, CTM, Google, and Skyscanner.

Wang said there also were plans to move SIA's operations to the cloud and adopt a cloud-first strategy. Apart from cost savings, this transition would increase the airline's speed to market, he said.

To ensure every employee was fully onboard with the company's digital transformation strategy, training courses had been planned to help its ground staff be "agile, data-driven, and customer-centric", he noted.

These upskilling programmes would be competed by end of 2019, he said, adding that the airline would be boosting its technical resources to include data scientists and cloud administrators.

Wang said: "Our ambition is to be the leading digital airline in the world. We want to offer the best customer experience, whether it is through digital, on-board, or on-ground. We want to optimise operations so we can be efficient and cost-effective. We also want to enable our employees to be productive and leverage innovation to generate new business revenue and opportunities."