Thomas Cook digital director: How to get cross-functional alignment

Group director of digital operations for UK travel brand shares his tips on getting the whole organisation to back digital transformation

Digital change and transformation can mean lots of different things to different organisations, but without strong cross-functional alignment and buy-in, and a focus on the customer and data, you’re not going to succeed.

That’s the view of Thomas Cook UK’s group director of digital operations, Graham Cook, who spoke to CMO about the lessons he’s learnt driving digital change and omni-channel excellence in advance of this year’s ADMA Data Day in Sydney and Melbourne.

The digital leader has spent the last six months as the travel group’s acting chief digital officer, and boasts of several years working with ecommerce, travel and telco organisations to bolster their digital and Web activity across Europe including Expedia and Orange. Cook’s current role sees him responsible for delivery of Thomas Cook’s digital development, stretching from coding to digital product management, analytics and optimisation solutions.

Graham Cook
Graham Cook

“Doing digital change just to improve the P&L for one part of the business is not the way to do it,” Cook said. “Also, you need to have to senior executive sponsorship from the start, as this needs to be embedded in the company strategy. If people can’t point to KPIs or strategic pillars, they won’t do it.

“If what you’re doing with digital ultimately doesn’t drive the company performance and bonus payments, or employees don’t see the reward or benefit from it, or it’s not helping the customer, it’s hard to get it done.”

While he’s a major advocate for data-driven operational excellence, Cook is equally convinced that interpersonal communication skills are what bring a customer-driven digital vision to life and inspire employees.

“You will have people who are not customer facing, or not interested in digital, and you’ve got to try and create that vision and story to bring it to life, and across silos,” he pointed out. “For example, with accounts payable – why would they care? It’s about inspiring those people to get how they’re part of it and how they can contribute to it.”

Defining digital

Digital has meant a number of things to Thomas Cook over recent years. The ecommerce and travel business operates both digitally as well as through bricks-and-mortar stores across several countries in Europe plus the UK.

Cook noted Thomas Cook’s former CEO, Harriet Green, saw digital as driver of change and growth for the entire company. The organisation’s current CEO, Peter Fankhauser, has since repositioned digital improvement within the context of a wider transformation of Thomas Cook’s overall go-to-market strategy and product set.

“Sometimes it’s about innovation, sometimes it’s been about trying new things, such as using virtual reality in our stores, where we put Oculus Rift in the stores after videoing a number of hotel locations to showcase them,” Cook said.

“Or it could be cultural change. This could be as simple as breaking down barriers, being non-hierarchical, adopting data-driven insight, actions, and embracing test-and-learn and failing fast. We’re trying to get these behaviours and best practices across how we interact with people regardless of channel.”

More recently, customer behaviour and data has pointed to the need for omni-channel excellence, Cook said.

“We have a number of data points and evidence that says customers are demanding great services on Web, mobile and tablet either to replace the retail store, or to complement the store,” he said. “Five years ago, our channels were in direct conflict with each other, as P&Ls were owned by different management channels that’d compete for the customer. Through organisational change, clear strategy and articulation of our pillars and priorities, we now work in a way where part of my job is to support my retail colleagues.

“It’s about creating that thinking where digital enhances experience and bridges the gap to allow customers to oscillate between the channels at will.”

To achieve this kind of alignment internally, Thomas Cook has trialled a raft of initiatives. For example, the organisation employed new operating models to ensure staff not only have a vested interest in day-to-day activities and line management responsibility, but also align to more strategic pillars for growth.

“We as a business have half a dozen group pillars or functions, which are strategic priorities to focus on, and it’s about coming together and breaking down the silos to achieve these solutions,” Cook explained. “The most obvious for me is that I have to deliver digital channels, but I also make sure retail customers get access to digital capability. That retail piece has nothing to do with my P&L, but it’s the right things to do because the customer is our focus and priority.”

Another initiative has been formal cultural events, such as its ‘Let’s go digital’ week to foster interest and alignment with its digital ambitions, Cook said. These involved creating a program of activity and working with individual markets on workshops covering key topics within the digital sphere.

“That created a buzz but also raised awareness and asked people to look at what does that mean to you in your role,” Cook said. “The point for us is about ‘better ways of working’ – we’re constantly challenging ourselves to work better together, how we organise and how agile are we, so we maximise the ROI on investment being made.”

Through all of this, data has informed strategy. Cook said Thomas Cook does a number of the “obvious” things, such as realigning marketing teams by inflow channel, and using data to drive marketing efficiency. From a website point of view, data is driving funnel analysis, customer segmentation, insights into the conversion process, and used to identify patterns that improve products and services.

“Then it’s about interpretation, insights and hypothesis testing,” Cook added.

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